Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 – Loneliness
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This week is Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and the focus this year is on loneliness.
The Mental Health Foundation says “One in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time. There’s no single cause and there’s no one solution. After all, we’re all different! But, the longer we feel lonely, the more we are at risk of mental health problems. Some people are also at higher risk of feeling lonely than others.”
If we can understand and prevent feelings of loneliness, in ourselves and in those surrounding us, then we can help to prevent mental health problems growing and worsening so let’s have a look at loneliness and how it can affect all of us.
Feeling lonely is very different from being alone. Being alone is a physical state where we are literally on our own whereas loneliness is a feeling, an emotional state, where we feel disconnected from other people and where our social connections are less than we need to be emotionally fulfilled.
Some of us can feel very comfortable when we are alone whereas for others this would lead to emotional distress because of a “need” to be with other people. This can depend on all sorts of personal characteristics and where you fall on the introversion/extroversion scale. For example, as a natural introvert I am very happy in my own company and, in fact, thrive from having time alone and can feel quite uncomfortable at times in situations where there are a lot of other people. I would be perfectly happy going to a coffee shop alone and enjoying my flat white without company whereas I have friends who tell me that they would hate this and would never think of doing such a thing.
Again, the above example of being alone vs being in company is different from the emotional state of loneliness.
Loneliness occurs when our social needs aren’t being met, when we feel that we have no-one to turn to or nobody who understands us, when we feel socially excluded or frightened to express our needs. There are many causes of loneliness and it can hit us at any time during our lives. We can feel lonely even when surrounded by people that we know well.
I said above that I am happy in my own company and, these days, I rarely feel lonely but there was a time in my life when I felt terribly lonely and, for a while, it felt like there might be no end to that feeling. This is very personal but I do think that it’s worth sharing here……
When, as a couple, we were going through infertility investigations and subsequently went on to have a son who was stillborn I felt so lonely it hurts to think back on that time. I was surrounded by people who were trying their best to be supportive but I felt so excluded and misunderstood. Most of my friends were having babies at this time and it was like they were in a club that there was no way I could be admitted to however hard I tried. This isn’t the place for going into too much detail about this personal experience but I did recover and have gone on to embrace life with all of its challenges and I am grateful for that.
There are many ways you can help yourself if you feel lonely, it can feel like a challenge to take steps to help yourself but it is important that you do take some steps and I’m only going to mention a couple here – as so often some time spent Googling will give you lots and lots of suggestions but here are a couple of my favourites:
1. Develop your social interest. This is a term coined by Alfred Adler in the early 1900’s and can defined as “a feeling of community, an orientation to live cooperatively with others, and a lifestyle that values the common good above one’s own interests and desires“. By developing social interest the belief is that you are helping your own personal mental health and it can lead to making genuine and worthwhile connections with others.
An example in the horsey world could be volunteering to help at your local RDA group.
2. Engage with the people that you meet in your day to day life. Smile at people you meet when out for a walk or chat to the delivery van driver and others you encounter. These seemingly simple social interactions will give you a boost and help you to feel less lonely. Smiling has been shown many times to give you an emotional boost and for the receiver of the smile to experience a similar boost.
3. Join an online supportive group which has similar interests to your own. Go for groups that are well regulated and have rules which encourage support between members. Finding people who are like minded, even if they are online, can lead to real support and friendship.
4. If you are struggling to take steps to overcome your loneliness then contact organisations like The Mental Health Foundation or Riders Minds which have expert support and advice.
If you find that you are rarely lonely and are happy with the amount of social support and interaction you have in your life then I believe that it’s worth spending some time, and making some effort, to help those who may be feeling lonely and isolated.
As horse riders there are a few simple ways you can include others and help those around you. Keep your eyes open for those who are often alone and make an effort to include them in chats, cups of tea and rides. Be prepared to listen to what they have to say and as them questions about their horse and themselves in a way that encourages them to open up and feel valued.
We can all do our bit to support each other throughout the year, not just in Mental Health Awareness Week.