Author: Sarah Borg, Dip. HE (Melit.); B.A. (Hons) (Melit.)
When we speak of ‘connection’ nowadays, we tend to think of virtual connection. The digital era we live in has provided us with the comfort of instant messaging, where our true emotions can be refabricated through emoticons and gifs; where we can share in real time videos of events we’d be participating in. Nowadays, we no longer need to phone a radio host to ask them to play our favourite song; YouTube is at our fingertips. We don’t need to ask for directions when we’re lost either; Google Maps is our friend.
Connected but not quite
This sense of increased autonomy can be viewed as a sign of progress and greater efficiency. But it’s also true that it has deprived us of the beauty of really interacting with others. Exchanging a smile with a random person on the street is much more meaningful than passing each other by whilst staring at our phones. Receiving a brief message of encouragment on your phone is also not the same as sitting in the presence of another person who looks you in the eye, gently touches your shoulder and offers spontaneous, heartfelt encouragement.
Research in this area confirms the power of meaningful interactions. An article about human connections refers to “the life force exchanged between humans through physical, intellectual and emotional pathways” and to the “energy and life that we can give to one another.” Meaningful connections are also associated with multiple desirable outcomes namely “being better able to cope with negative events and to adapt to life transitions, more courage in parenting and a stronger sense of wellbeing.”
On the other hand, isolation is associated with several health ailments. One might think that the hazards are only psychological; but we know that being isolated has negative repercussions on one’s holistic wellbeing: reduced life expectancy, malfunctioning of the immune system and a low threshold to stress, to name a few. In 2018, Britain even appointed a minister for loneliness – Tracy Crouch – to reduce the risk of physical and psychological repercussions on citizens, and to prevent a potential social crisis, which would possibly also impact the economy.
Loneliness is real
Yes, loneliness is real. According to a study about the prevalence of loneliness in Malta, conducted nationally for the first time round in 2021, 43.5% of the Maltese population experiences some form of loneliness. The pandemic did not help either, with the Times of Malta reporting that “46% of the Maltese are concerned with their mental health as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.”
But beyond the pandemic, loneliness has been referred to, locally, as “a modern epidemic” and it can be felt much more when you are surrounded by people who might be oblivious to your pain. Weddings and Christmas time, for instance, both celebrations of love and union, can be powerful reminders of the sense of loneliness and void within you. You might be single, divorced, widowed, or experiencing some form of exclusion. It is not easy; prolonged loneliness can be emotionally tiring, possibly leading you to view life as a pointless and depressing game.
Loneliness is so real that we are also witnessing what is known as ‘social prescribing’ whereby lonely people are being prescribed activities such as “volunteering, befriending and team sports” in order to improve their situation. Such activities are known to help in increasing one’s sense of belonging. Their efficacy is a great reminder that you can take actionable steps to alleviate your loneliness. Below are just a couple of concrete actions that you can add to your routine in order to alleviate your loneliness.
- Make the most of current interactions. Even if your circle of friends is very limited, try to find ways in which to maximise the quality of the time you spend with them. For instance, sharing emotions and personal experiences can be more meaningful than discussing current affairs. Take interest in the other person while interacting, asking questions to understand them better.
- Engage in a creative or leisurely activity. Making time for creative pursuits allows you to immerse yourself in your creation, whether that is a drawing, cooking, composing a piece of music, etc. The act of creating, diverts your focus and provides a sense of fulfillment as you see the end result. Making time for leisure and recreation, even if it’s just a walk alone in nature, can also be helpful. Refrain from using technology and if possible, get outside. Since you’d need to put on different clothes, you would already be inviting a change in mindset, which may continue to shift once you also change your environment.
- Help another person in some way. This allows you to put your skills and abilities to good use, while again diverting your focus from your loneliness. It may also strengthen your bondwith the person receiving your help. Knowing that you were helpful to another person will most likely elicit a positive feeling that can help relieve the ache of loneliness.
- Consider getting a pet. If you’ve everentertained this idea, here is another reason to do so. Caring for an animal companion is known to improve both mental and physical wellness. For instance, as you take care of your pet’s physical needs, you might remember to take care of yours too. Besides, the love that animals can show may also be very heartwarming and uplifting.
How Therapy can help
While we can help ourselves through such steps, being accompanied by a professional offers a different kind of support. Here are a few ways in which therapy can help us during phases of loneliness:
- Awareness. Therapy can help you acknowledge your exact feelings, possibly naming the specific emotions that are present in your loneliness. You can also explore the different nuances of the loneliness you experience (e.g loneliness felt at a wedding vs loneliness felt when you’re alone at home). Your history in relation to your current loneliness might also be tapped into.
- Reframing. After being aware of your current feelings, you might need to reframe your heavy emotion. For instance, the therapist can remind you that no emotion is final, thus helping you put things into perspective. You can also be invited to view your lonely state as an opportunity for self-reflection, creative thought and new discoveries. Moreover, not having many social commitments might be reframed as being more available to new projects and adventures.
- Self-compassion. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that something is wrong with you or that you need to be fixed. Therapy can help you to be with what is, without any blame or judgement but with lots of kindness, understanding and gentleness with yourself.
- Safe space. In therapy you also benefit from a safe space; what you share remains confidential, as long as it will not be damaging to yourself and/or to others. With your therapist you can share the little victories and let-downs along the journey of mitigating loneliness. The therapist may remind you that progress is done in tiny steps, which makes it worth celebrating every little successful attempt together. You might also be gently challenged to revisit limiting beliefs about yourself, about people and the world, and about the way that relationships work.
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Calleja, C. (2020, April, 05). Hundreds of calls made to loneliness helpline. Times of Malta.
Clark M., Bonnici J., Azzopardi A. (2021). Loneliness in Malta: Findings from the first National Prevalence Study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 38(9):2751-2771. doi: 10.1177/02654075211020120
Gov.uk (2018, October 15). PM launches Government’s first loneliness strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy
Kenely, N. (22 July 2020) Loneliness – A Modern Epidemic. Societas.Expert: Issue 1. Faculty of Social Wellbeing. https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/handle/123456789/78704
Landau, M. D. (2021, July, 08). 5 Things Mental Health Experts Do When They Feel Lonely. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/things-mental-health-experts-do-when-they-feel-lonely/
Raypole C., (n.d.) 12 Things to Do When You Feel Lonely. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/how-to-not-feel-lonely
Sgroi, A., & Saltiel, I. (1998). Human Connections. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 1998(79), 87-92. DOI: 10.1002/ace.7909
This project has been funded by the Small Initiatives Support Scheme (SIS) managed by the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector (MCVS)
This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the MCVS cannot be held responsible for the content or any use which may be made of the information contained therein.