Isolation and Loneliness
Trigger Warning: this article discusses multiple forms of mental health; eating disorders, drug abuse, suicide and self-harm, depression and anxiety.
A recent survey run by the Office for National Statistics uncovered that during the first UK lockdown, 48.5 percent of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’.
So, what is it about COVID-19 which is making students feel lonely? Why is it still possible to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people? In this blog we explore the differences between isolation and loneliness. You can be isolated and not feel lonely and vice versa.
To get to the bottom of these questions, it’s important to better understand what in the first instance causes loneliness.
What causes loneliness?
There are two major sources of loneliness; the first is when you feel you have a lack meaningful relationships in your life. For example, having poor support networks or having shallow virtual interactions over true meaningful ones.
The second reason is holding unrealistically high expectations of social interactions; unmet expectations are at the inner core of loneliness.
What do we mean by this? Well, sometimes individuals feel lonely because they want more from others than they may be prepared to give, or can become cynical about others' opinions when approaching them. For example, students coming to university for the first time having a perception of university life and the experiences it will bring, which might be vastly different to the reality. Therefore, there’s no surprise that students far and wide are feeling lonely, particularly if they started university in lockdown, as they generally feel robbed of ‘first time’ student experiences, such as Freshers’ Week.
Students when joining university naturally define themselves by the subject they study and the sports teams or societies they join, building that self-confidence and independence from the family and friends they left at home. So frustrations will be very much present, as any expectations fail to be met, missing simple interactions of everyday in person learning.
Can Isolation cause Loneliness?
There are some cases in which isolation can lead to loneliness. Sometimes not being around others for long periods of time can make people feel intensely alone. For example, if someone studies from home, they may spend all day alone in their house without much social contact, in which case they may experience feelings of loneliness. The experience of being alienated from a social group is also likely to bring about feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness can sometimes lead to isolation
People who feel lonely for long periods of time may have a hard time engaging with others in social situations. If it seems too difficult to reach out to others or if a fear of rejection has taken hold, people may isolate themselves to deal with their loneliness. The isolation-loneliness cycle often feeds into itself, but does not offer respite or relief to the people stuck in it.
In some cases, isolation and feelings of loneliness may occur simultaneously, without one being caused by the other. This typically means that other social, psychological, or mental health-related factors may be involved. For example, circumstances that test our resilience to loneliness include major transitions such as moving home or job away from the community you are used to. Please see below for tips to combat this.
How Loneliness and Isolation can affect your mental health in the long term
One of the reasons loneliness is so bad for us is because it makes it harder for us to control our habits and behaviour. Studies have shown that the expectation of isolation reduces our willpower and perseverance, and makes it harder to regulate our behaviour: causing the potential to drink more alcohol, have unhealthier diets and take part in less exercise than the socially contented.
There are different reasons why lonely people find it hard to keep themselves in check, but low self-esteem and a wish for instant gratification can be factors.
Prolonged loneliness can lead to health problems. Too much time alone has been shown to impact cognitive development in young people and lead to poor physical health habits. Sometimes feeling lonely for a long time can make people feel that taking care of themselves isn’t worth the effort.
Some other effects of isolation and loneliness to look out for may include:
- Risk-taking behavior
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Increased stress
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Altered brain function
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
Risk factors for Loneliness and Isolation
Just as with any other issue, some people may be more susceptible to isolation and loneliness than others, although anyone can become isolated or feel lonely.
Factors that could contribute to loneliness could include:
- personal life and relationships
- money, work and housing
- life changes (including living through the Coronavirus outbreak)
- health issues
- traumatic life events
- smoking, alcohol, gambling and drug misuse
Its worth noting that, loneliness effect groups of students in different ways and some may experience more loneliness than others. Men and international students are more likely to feel lonely due to the nature of their social interactions. For example, men tend to be less open about emotions and not as willing to share information about themselves.
Similarly, International students are less likely to have the same level of emotional support, making them feel more isolated and experience higher levels of loneliness. With all of this in mind, make sure you reach out to others, as more often than not, they too will have experienced some feelings of loneliness, similar to your feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Tips to combat Loneliness and Isolation
Have fewer, higher quality relationships
Rather than superficial relationships, concentrate on building high quality relationships with fewer people in your ‘circle’. Loneliness is not necessarily a result of isolation, but rather a lack of deep and meaningful connections with people that surround them. The more connections we have, the harder it is to maintain these and less likely it is that they will be deep, meaningful and personal.
Be open to letting your guard down
Social media has driven students to post their achievements during lockdown, when in reality, behind the photos people are feeling unproductive and sluggish, but would never elude to any of the negative thoughts due to the stigma behind it. Loneliness is often stigmatised; some students worry and even find it shameful to admit they feel lonely on their social media.
Although posting it publically might be one step too far for you personally, reaching out and sharing personal sensitive information with others, like admitting what's worrying you, your bad habits and setbacks, actually helps to build and maintain relationships. Through intimate conversations students can actually build a community, break down barriers and encourage others to speak openly.
Seek opportunities to share your feelings and reveal more of yourself; this in turn will encourage others to speak openly and lead to a feeling overall connectedness.
Make an effort to help others
According to research, one of the best ways to help combat feelings of loneliness is to consciously make an effort to help those around you. By simply talking about loneliness with another going through the same thoughts and feelings as you, can actually reduce loneliness as well as normalising the feelings that each of us are going through to some degree.
Helping and showing kindness to others can make you realise the relationships around you are more meaningful. Kindness is a choice; we all have the control and autonomy to be kind and nice to others; a simple act of kindness can reduce loneliness and other negativities they are currently going through silently.
Make New Connections
If you are feeling lonely because of a lack of satisfying social contact in your life, you could try to meet more, or different people.
Try to join a class or group based on your hobbies or interests. This could include online groups if you can't attend things in person.
Volunteering helps to reduce loneliness in two ways: someone who is lonely might benefit not only from helping others, but also from being involved in a voluntary scheme where they receive support and help to build their own social network, preventing loneliness from becoming chronic.
Have intimate conversations with friends and family
Especially in a period of isolation, the simple act of reaching out to friends and family is more important than ever in these unprecedented times. Check in with your family and friends, and more importantly, be honest explaining your current thoughts and feelings.
Keep conversations to a positive note; for example, conversations of nostalgia, such as the last time you went out or the last holiday period celebrated can help reduce loneliness as well as createing a sense of emotional warmth.
Keep conversations intimate; asking open ended questions to encourage a conversation between family and friends also helps, not only in helping yourself through loneliness, but keeps the conversation flowing rather than just talking about yourself, ultimately showing you care for others.
Reach out to friends who might be feeling lonely
It is normal to feel a sense of isolation and loneliness during the current pandemic; everyone is going through their own experiences, and we are all hungry for face-to-face social contact. Digital platforms like Zoom helped bridge the gap to stay connected to the ones close to us, but we all need to make a conscious effort to keep in touch with loved ones. Adopting a ‘pay it forward’ mindset can help you help someone close, as well as feeling more connected within yourself.
Think about the last time someone reached out and helped you when you were feeling low and lonely; turn that positive feeling into motivation to do the same with others.
Look after yourself
It sounds like a basic ask, but we are all guilty of putting others first! Be a bit selfish and look after yourself; the below points from Mind help point out how small changes can really improve your overall wellbeing.
- Try to get enough sleep. Getting too little or too much sleep can have a big impact on how you feel.
- Think about your diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable can make a difference to your mood and energy levels.
- Try to do some physical activity. Exercise can be really helpful for your mental wellbeing, and some people find it helps improve their self-esteem.
- Spend time outside. Spending time in green space can help your wellbeing.
- Spend time with animals. Some people find spending time around animals can help with feelings of loneliness, whether through owning a pet or spending time around animals in their natural environment.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. While you might want to use drugs and alcohol to cope with difficult feelings about yourself, in the long run they can make you feel worse and can prevent you from dealing with underlying problems.
If you’re feeling lonely or experience isolation for long periods of time, it may help to reach out to the services mentioned below who can offer support as you work through those struggles.
Not addressing prolonged loneliness and isolation can negatively impact your physical and mental wellbeing.
If there is a deeper mental health problem causing your feelings of loneliness or isolation, a GP can help treat that issue and put you on the path to your best self.
Remember that you are not alone and there is never shame in asking for help.
The Advice Service is operating as usual via remote means. You can contact the service using the contact the details below. The service will operate video calling consultations via Zoom as required during usual drop-in times of 10am-12pm and 1pm-3pm, Monday to Thursday. You can find the link on our Undeb Myfyrwyr Aberystwyth Students' Union Facebook page or on our website on the homepage underneath our Facebook handle.
Online: Using our enquiry form
By Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Phone: 01970 621712
- Togetherall (previously known as Big White Wall)
A safe community to support your mental health, 24-7, sign up with your student email for FREE.
During these uncertain times you don't need to struggle on your own. Togetherall is a peer-to-peer platform is a safe place to connect with others experiencing similar feelings, plus there are trained professionals on hand, 24/7. All members are anonymous to each other within the community.
Sign up here: https://togetherall.com/en-gb/
Whatever you're going through, a Samaritan will face it with you, We're here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
By Email: email@example.com (response time 24hrs)
By Phone: 116 123
Try the Samartians Self Help App
One-to-one support for whatever challenge you’re facing, designed for students. Whether it’s your mental health, your studies, money, housing or relationships, we’re here to support you.
By text: text ‘STUDENT’ to 85258
By phone: 0808 189 5260
By Live Webschat: https://studentspace.org.uk/support-services/webchat-support
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Community Advice and Listening Line
Offers emotional support and information/literature on Mental Health and related matters to the people of Wales. Anyone concerned about their own mental health or that of a relative or friend can access the service. C.A.L.L. Helpline offers a confidential listening and support service.
By Phone: 0800 132737
By Text: text ‘help’ to 81066
Mind Aberystwyth is one of over twenty local Mind associations in Wales, working to improve the life of people affected by mental distress. We are an independent charity in our own right, run by local people, for local people
By phone: 01970 626225
By Email: email@example.com