People feel lonely for a wide range of reasons. Loneliness can be linked to mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety, perfectionism, low self esteem or eating disorders. It can also be linked to autism, loss, difficulties disclosing, early adulthood, elderly. This is not an exhaustive list but illustrates how many factors can be linked to the problem of loneliness.
Loneliness is the perceived discrepancy between what we want and what we’ve got, a mismatch between actual and desired social situation, a lack of meaningful relationships. Social isolation doesn’t have to equal loneliness. We can be alone without feeling lonely.
Triggers to feeling lonely can be internal psychological factors, such as attitudes to participating in social interaction / having a negative interpersonal appraisal, e.g. other people don’t like me; or external factors, such as bereavement or living far away from friends and family. These factors evoke an emotional response such as anxiety or sadness
and can lead to counter productive behaviour such as avoidance and a decrease in valued social contact or unhelpful cognitive processes in the social domain, e.g. self focused attention or hypervigilance to rejection. This then impacts on our perception and our interpretation of our relationships / social situations and can inadvertently become a
perpetuating cycle of loneliness.
Social media also has a big impact on loneliness, particularly in early adulthood. People share and post what they want us to see and we can end up comparing ourselves to others. The pandemic too has had an impact on loneliness. Spending less time with friends and family, self isolating and shielding are all contributory factors to feeling lonely. If we struggle with technology this too may play a part.
So how do we change things? In CBT we look at four domains: the individual, their relationships, social relations and the community. In terms of strategies behavioural activation is key with a focus on increasing the amount of social interaction, social contact and social networks. We can explore values and once we have identified these set goals to
help meet where the person wants to be in their values. We can introduce and identify unhelpful thought patterns and beliefs, and learn techniques to restructure these. We can learn strategies to reduce rumination and use behavioural experiments to make changes and gather information, e.g. finding out what happens if you do disclose and share with others. Additionally whilst engaging in behavioural activation we can practise exposure
whilst reducing safety behaviours.
Everyone is different and because loneliness can be for many different reasons there is no one size fits all. Other strategies may also be used, such as social skills and communication training, mindfulness, mapping social opportunities, emotional awareness and psycho-education.
To address loneliness in older adults Age UK and the befriending service, such as Silverline, can be a great resource. Age UK offer all sorts such as social activities, lunch clubs, IT Training, transport, day centres. Younger adults may benefit from Meet Up groups, Young Minds or The Mix.
Reaching out, connecting with others and using the supports that are available to us are fundamental in combatting loneliness. Remember we all feel lonely at times in our lives.
Rebecca Mead is an accredited, registered and experienced Psychotherapist offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) to individuals adults. Rebecca is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.
Further reading by Rebecca Mead –