If you’re feeling lonely, the celebrations at Christmas and at New Year and the start of a new year itself can be tough. We’re bombarded with images of parties, family gatherings, loving couples, where everyone is hugging, happy and hopeful. We know most people’s lives don’t come up to the hype, but if we’re lonely, that doesn’t help. Knowing other people are lonely too doesn’t lessen the pain.
Being lonely isn’t the same as being alone. You can be lonely at a party, lonely sitting at a table with your family, lonely with your partner. You can be alone and lonely too, of course.
It is possible to be alone and not feel lonely. We are all on a continuum and have a level of interaction with other people that is comfortable and positive – that level is different for all of us. Too much interaction can be as uncomfortable as too little, and some people enjoy being alone for much of the time.
This means that loneliness is subjective. You can’t measure the number of meaningful people or interactions in your life to say whether you’re lonely or not. It’s how you feel about it.
Being lonely means you feel disconnected from other people, without meaningful relationships. It’s painful and should never be dismissed – it’s real and serious.
Being lonely hurts in itself, but it can also have a serious affect on your mental health. It can lead to anxiety, depression or alcoholism, and to suicidal thoughts. It can affect your sleep. And in some people it can lead to social alienation.
It can also affect your physical health, and is associated with a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. It can also impair your cell immunity.
So if you feel lonely, what can you do?
Loneliness may be temporary – perhaps you are in a new place and haven’t met anyone yet – and in time you will find people and make new relationships. Loneliness may, on the other hand, be chronic. You may find it hard to make friends, have lost someone who was important to you, be lonely after a divorce, or in your marriage, or you may feel you cannot give or receive love in the relationships you have.
If you feel chronically lonely, you do need to seek help.
An interesting finding in some US surveys is that pet ownership can bring health benefits, including reducing loneliness – it’s obvious that walking a dog can make it easier to meet other people, but it seems to go further than this. It’s a new area for research so we don’t yet know how animals help with loneliness, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
Depending on the causes of your loneliness and how you experience it, there are various treatments. Therapy can be extremely useful because it helps you to understand why you are lonely, to turn round negative feelings, emotions and attitudes, and to find ways to increase your social interaction. You may be prescribed antidepressants, perhaps in combination with therapy.
Talking through your loneliness with a professional can really help. Private Psychiatry can offer you the help and support you need to work out the causes of your loneliness and to work through a path to recovery.
The website of the mental health charity Mind also has some useful information and links to organisations who can help further.