Solutions to loneliness in the midst of Winter

It’s easier to feel alone in the cold and dark of winter and I talked with Jo Carnegie from In the moment magazine to come up with with some solutions for loneliness:

“Here’s a scenario for you. I’m a 42-year-old journalist, well established, with nine published novels under my belt. I live by myself in a nice flat in a buzzy part of Bristol, a teeming and vibrant city of 455,000 people. I am currently single but quite happy with it. I am close to my family and we speak regularly on the phone. I have a lot of friends, both old and new, and have just returned from a weekend get-together with fifteen-plus university mates. I am also on a fundamental, day-to-day level, really quite lonely.

Most people who know me would be surprised to hear me say that. I’m quite surprised myself; I always thought that loneliness was something that only happened to old people and social misfits. But it would appear, excuse the pun, that I’m not alone in feeling alone. Recent surveys have showed that for the first time, people under 70 are feeling lonelier than those over 70, there is an explosion in loneliness in people aged 18-24 and loneliness is on the rise in children. A 2014 survey by the Centre of Social Justice coined the UK as ‘The Loneliness Capital of Europe’. “There is something British about wanting to deal with problems yourself,” commented CEO Christian Guy. “It is ironic in a sense because we are becoming ever more connected in the way that we can communicate.” Welcome to the modern-day ‘invisible’ loneliness epidemic.

Take social media, for example. We know it’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction, yet most of us still rely heavily on it. “I’ve got over a thousand friends on Facebook,” says Sophie, 38, from Manchester. “But when I was going through a personal crisis earlier this year, I realised there was only a handful of people I could pick the phone up to tell them how I was really feeling. It was a massive wake up call. Why was I spending all my time and energy on people I couldn’t even call in a crisis – or even worse, people I didn’t even know?”

This time of year can feel extra hard with a stream of party selfies, ‘We’re off to get the Christmas tree!’ type posts and family shots of sock-clad feet snuggled around a roaring log fire. Psychologist Dr Jane McCartney says it’s the comparative element of social media that make loneliness feel even worse. “We compare our social media to their social media, and think their lives are much better than our lives. If we’re already feeling vulnerable and lonely, it just adds to the feeling.”

Then there is the rise of solo living. According to the Office of National Statistics, around 7.7 million of us now choose to, or live alone, and the majority of those are women. With the likes of Deliveroo, Ocado and Amazon now on tap, we have no need to go out for dinner, do the weekly grocery shop or any other trifling domestic matter. Economic and social progress means our lives are more independent and privileged than ever, but the downside is that it would seem that increasing numbers of us are sat alone in our self-built ivory towers, well-stocked on the fridge and films front but not so much on the face-to-face friendly thing.

“We don’t leave home to go to the local video shop now, or even the cinema, because we can live-stream films into our front rooms,” says Rhona Clews, a coach and therapist with a background in clinical psychology. “It might feel like a luxury but in terms of increasing loneliness, we are missing that everyday contact. It’s the same if you work from home. It’s fantastic in terms of flexibility and being in charge of your own schedule but it also means you can be so self-sufficient that you go for days without seeing anyone.” Message received…

What if you’re surrounded by people and you still feel lonely? Gina is 45 and married with three sons, aged seven, twelve and thirteen. She somehow manages to fit in a job as an HR manager in between. “If I said to people I feel really alone, they would laugh, because everyone says I’m always the busiest person they know,” she says. “But the truth is that I spend so much time running around after other people that I don’t know who I am anymore. Then I feel guilty because I have a lovely house and family and I feel like I should be happy.”

“It’s actually very easy to feel lonely in a family or a crowd,” says Rhona Clews. “Continually caring for others results in disconnection from ourselves as an individual, often resulting in people pleasing and self-abandonment. Women especially are socialised to be highly aware of others needs before their own.” Rather than feeling like you need an extreme life overhaul, Rhona suggests small, creative, daily things to find your sense of self. “When you’re exhausted after a long day, it’s easy to slump down in front of the TV or scroll through Facebook, but this tends to emphasise the feeling of disconnect. Instead take a moment to ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy doing? What fills me up and makes me feel happy?”

Phillippa works in the media and has a busy social life. “I’ve never been very good on my own. The other night I found myself out with a group of people and I looked around the table and thought to myself: ‘I don’t know if I even like you, let alone have anything in common with you. It made me feel even worse than if I was sat at home alone.”

“Hanging out with the wrong crowd risks making you feel even more isolated,” says Rhona. “You may start to think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I fit in?’ instead of ‘Are these my people?’ As humans we are constantly evolving and we can forget to update our social lives to stay amongst the right tribe. Things you had in common with friends ten years ago may just no longer apply. That’s why things like are so great, especially in big cities. You can discover people with the same interests as you and you can get involved and really connect.”

Dr Jane McCartney agrees that the best way to deal with loneliness is to be proactive. “When we were at school it was easier to make friends because it was all there for us, and as adults we often carry on that mindset. But we have to get out there. There’s so much choice these days, it’s just about taking the initiative.” Even if it doesn’t feel very British. “I don’t think there’s that social stigma attached to loneliness anymore,” says Dr Jane. “You don’t even have to fire off a text to someone saying: ‘I’m lonely!’ but instead reach out and say, ‘Hello, how are you doing? Would you like to meet up?’

And remember, loneliness affects us all. It’s normal to feel lonely after a big life event like a relationship breakdown, bereavement, or moving job or house. But if your loneliness becomes a long-term issue, or you feel embarrassed or in denial about it, try to use it as an opportunity to further understand instead of beating yourself up about it. “When you’re feeling lonely, ask yourself, ‘What do I really need?” says Rhona. “By getting clear on our needs, we put the power back in our own hands, and eradicate any self-criticism or ‘shoulds’ which might be lurking in the loneliness.” If you aren’t sure what your needs even are, Rhona suggests working with a coach or a practitioner. “Sometimes there’s a backlog of emotions to be addressed and released in order for us to move on and live more fully in the present.”

It’s also important to make the distinction between being alone and feeling alone. “The difference is choice,” says Rhona. “When we are alone we are choosing our own company and when we feel lonely, we feel like it has been decided for us by some external outside agency. In fact it hasn’t. However when we are in it, it often doesn’t feel like that, again this is where getting some outside support could be helpful to shift our mindset and bring about positive change.”

As the cold, dark winter stretches ahead, reinvent your time alone (or together) instead. “Reframe winter from a potentially isolating time to an opportunity to learn or engage with something new,” says Rhona. “Rather than thinking, ‘Why am I staying in by myself on a Saturday night again, I’m a saddo!’ ask yourself: ‘What would I rather be doing? What fulfills me?’ Don’t just watch crap telly or stare at your phone for hours, engage in an inspiring activity, even if it’s low-key or quiet. Loneliness often makes us feel like we’re weird or a misfit, but actually it’s an invitation to connect to those creative, passionate, and unexplored parts of ourselves.”

Article by Jo Carnegie featured in “In the moment” magazine.