Even before the events over the last year there was increasing concern about the number of people feeling socially isolated and lonely. Research has explored the impact of isolation on our physical and mental health, with studies stating it is twice as harmful as obesity.
The Mental Health Foundation has been leading a study into the impact of Covid on mental health since March 2020. One of the regular measures is feelings of loneliness. They have seen this increase to 1 in 4 now reporting feeling lonely and isolated, this is highest in younger people, those who are unemployed, students, and single parents.
Short term loneliness is something we can all feel at times in our lives and completely natural, but long term loneliness and isolation can increase depression, anxiety, and stress. The impact of long-term isolation on mental health can be challenging to manage, we can feel hopeless and overwhelmed.
Working from home is also having an impact on our feelings of isolation. The change to our routines and ceasing the commute may have seemed positive initially but for some, as this continues it is becoming more difficult. For many the workplace was where they met their social needs, whether this was just chatting whilst making coffee, interaction about work projects, or going out after work with colleagues. These social interactions large and small were a huge part of many people’s lives.
It is unsurprising that many are finding the enforced isolation difficult and this is affecting mental health. Humans are social creatures, even those of us who are more introverted still thrive on the right social contact. As working from home will be the norm for a while yet and we continue to live with restrictions how can we reduce our feelings of isolation?
Combating isolation and loneliness
Acknowledging how you are feeling, firstly to yourself and then opening up to someone. There is still a stigma around admitting we feel isolated or lonely, as though we have “failed” in some way. As more people are feeling isolated due to the pandemic it is the perfect time to share, be open, and honest. You may be surprised that others share they are feeling the same way or people may be shocked as you have hidden this so well. Once they are aware we have the opportunity for new or more nurturing relationships.
If you feel unable to share with people you know then you could speak to a helpline or professional (Contacts at end of the article) to gain some support and in time this will hopefully enable you to build more open personal relationships.
Workplaces generally have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) that offer support to discuss how you are feeling, the impact of changes, and isolation. They are completely confidential and easily accessible. This is another option to reach out for support.
Apart from talking whether to friends or professionals, it is also key to think about what changes you can make to your daily routine to increase connections.
Lunchtime social – work colleagues have lunch/chat together or make this more structured with a book club or topic of the day to discuss
Share/learn new hobbies- I know workplaces where colleagues are sharing their non-work related skills via lunch or after work catch-ups. These have ranged from origami to model making, knitting to painting. Do you have a hobby you could share?
Virtual coffee catch up- schedule short 15 mins a couple of times a day to chat with colleagues- non-work related, build in those moments you had in the office, whether this is chatting about the latest TV show, or how the dog got covered in mud!
Wellbeing Wednesdays- many organisations have regular wellbeing sessions- this could be mindfulness, yoga, nutrition or just sharing how we are all feeling and ideas to look after ourselves. The collective sharing is very supportive.
Boundary your work day so you have time for your wellbeing and connections, do not just continue working to fill a void.
Accept how you are feeling, journal, or spend time understanding your feelings. This knowledge will help you take steps to change.
Reach out to family and friends and arrange regular catch-ups. These could be a small one to one chat or online social activity with a group.
Learn a new skill- there are so many online learning activities, try this with a new group of people. Learning together builds social bonds and increases learning.
Be at peace with the isolation. You may be isolated but that does not have to lead to loneliness or feeling “bad” It is a time to get to know yourself, what is key in your life? Knowing ourselves improves relationships and reduces stress. Spend time meditating, walking, reading, journaling, hobbies.
Write a letter- not all connection has to be online! The gift of writing and receiving a letter is huge. It deepens connection and could become a regular activity- you could build a pen pal circle with new connections or write to relatives or friends.
Use creativity to express your feelings. This can help put them in context, release pent up frustration, and enable you to make peace with the situation.
Volunteer- there are many voluntary organisations looking for support, Including those who befriend lonely or isolated people with telephone calls or help running errands for those who cannot go out. Helping others can boost our sense of self and connect to deeper meaning, reducing our sense of isolation.
There are many more ideas but hopefully, these are a few thoughts to get your mind thinking, maybe you can come up with another idea that works better for you. Whatever you do it is taking the first step to making a change and continuing to take small regular steps that will make a difference.
It is worth noting that we can feel isolated within a crowd or surrounded by friends if we do not feel comfortable within ourselves. This is the time to embrace the opportunity to feel at home within ourselves.
These are challenging times and it is ok not to be ok. Acknowledge how you are feeling, reach out get support and take that first step.