Being alone can be a very positive state of being - a time for reflection, contemplation and self-assessment. Loneliness is totally different. The feelings of isolation that come from not being part of a group or social network where we feel we are in touch with one another and can share our daily burdens can, over time, become unbearable, as connecting with others is vital to both our mental and our physical well-being. Chronic loneliness is often associated with, or at the very least, is a precursor to, many other mental problems. It is closely linked to depression and social anxiety syndrome and, if unchecked, can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Studies have shown that loneliness can double a persons chances of catching a cold, that lonely people are four times more like to suffer from a heart attack and, if so, that they are four times more likely to die from it (Geller, Jeffrey. Loneliness: An overlooked and costly health risk factor. Minnesota Medicine. April 2000: vol 83 .)
Moreover, researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles have found that long-term loneliness can trigger a unique change in gene activity which increases the risk of cancer and other life threatening diseases significantly. That’s why loneliness should be taken very seriously and why we should do all we can to keep socially engaged throughout our lives. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of social isolation, particularly if you've been through a traumatic episode in your life, or suffer from anxiety of depression. Negative self-perception is one of the biggest causes of loneliness, as those suffering from it often feel inept at social intercourse and tend to avoid opportunities where it might happen. As I mentioned earlier, this behavior is totally different to ‘being alone ’ in that it is driven from self-loathing or, at the very least, from self-doubt. It takes an amount of courage to face others when you have isolated yourself from them for a long period of time; and so, rather than push you to ‘just get out there and meet new people ’ (which would be far too glib of me), I suggest the following gentle steps towards social re-connection and self-help.
UNDERSTAND THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE
This sounds obvious, but most of the resounding statements from lonely people are connected to their feelings of ‘not belonging’ or ‘not feeling normal’. Debilitating loneliness affects around one in four of the population, so there are plenty of others out there feeling just as you do right now. There are numerous resources online that can help you understand this important fact. Many provide the opportunity to communicate with other sufferers and can prove to be an excellent first step towards a more confident and conversant you. One of the best sites I have come across is Web of Loneliness (www.webofloneliness.com) where you can find numerous articles, discussions and groups to connect you with others. For those of you that are housebound, these sites provide an extremely valuable life-line whilst, for others, they are a very effective way of socially re-engaging as you continue to build your confidence by undertaking the following exercises at your own pace.
TAKE THE FIRST STEP
Start with a simple ‘hello’ to the postman, a ‘good morning’ to a neighbor and see where it takes you. Don’t wait for others to approach you and if they seem too busy to answer then don’t take it as a personal rejection. Congratulate yourself on your courage and keep at it!
TAKE AN INTEREST
Once you have overcome your personal boundaries in greeting others then start to notice and comment on everyday events around you. You might notice someone picking up a book you have read in a library or a favorite magazine in a shop. Don’t be afraid to comment on it to them and listen to their responses. Lonely people often isolate themselves to the point where they close themselves off to others opinions for fear of not fitting in. Listening is the first important step in being heard.
BUILD YOUR CONFIDENCE
So now that you’re chatting with others, albeit small talk, it’s time to take the next step and join a group geared around a subject that interests you. I know all too well that it takes tremendous courage to walk into a room full of strangers for the first time but, as mentioned above, understanding that you are not alone in your feelings and reservations, is key to finding the confidence to do it and to ultimately build the relationships you deserve. Once you have made initial contact with people in the group and have gone through the process of getting to know them a little better, then push yourself to make a phone call, email or write a letter to one or more of them whose details you have hopefully exchanged. Friendship, like everything worthwhile in life, takes time, work and commitment. It doesn’t just happen without any participation from you but the results of your efforts can be so emotionally fulfilling that, in the end, they are their own reward.
THE ULTIMATE GIFT
The most important thing to remember is that loneliness isn’t incurable. It’s a state of being that is self-perpetuating but, by fully understanding that you are not alone and that you can make a difference to both yourself and to others, you give yourself the strength to make the changes necessary and, ultimately, you acquire the riches of companionship and belonging that we all deserve.
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