No doubt we’ve all felt lonely from time to time. From flying the nest to starting a new job, moving to a different country or becoming a new parent, there are many times in life when loneliness can set in.
It’s natural to feel lonely at different points in our lives. Human beings are social creatures and thrive on meaningful connection.
Yet, globally, loneliness is now considered a serious public health issue, and in Australia it has hit epidemic proportions. Fortunately, the detrimental effects loneliness has on both our physical and mental health is now part of the wider conversation, particularly how loneliness – or more specifically, lack of social integration and social support – can impact life expectancy.
Dr Steve Ellen, a psychiatrist and co-author of Mental: Everything you Never Knew you Needed to Know About Mental Health, agrees that there are currently a number of key societal factors coming together to create a “perfect storm of loneliness”.
“We’ve been talking about loneliness for decades, but it's never really been taken seriously,” says Ellen.
“In order for things to improve, the health consequences of loneliness must be taken seriously and become part of our everyday conversations around health.”
A modern epidemic
According to a recent study produced by Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, The Australian Loneliness Report, one in four Australian adults are lonely. The report also found that those struggling have significantly worse health status, both physically and mentally, than those with strong connections.
Lonely Australians are 15.2% more likely to be depressed, states the report, while 13.1% are more likely to be anxious about social interactions than those who don’t feel lonely.
So why are we feeling lonelier than ever before? The simple answer is aspects of modern life increases the risk of loneliness. Many of us no longer live in extended families, or even near our family members. People are delaying getting married and having children (with some forgoing both). Meanwhile, divorce rates continue to rise, traditional ways of coming together (such as local church communities) are dwindling, and a growing number of people of all ages now live alone.
Even if we do know our neighbours, it’s unlikely we have a close connection with them. The report unearths some sobering statistics about neighbourly interaction. A third of Australians (34%) have no neighbours they see or hear from on a monthly basis, while nearly half of Australians (47%) have no neighbours they can call for help.
Combine all these elements, and it’s easy to see why more and more people are becoming socially isolated in Australia.
There’s also the negative impact social media is having on our relationships and sense of real connection. Research has found that loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships. Social media may have an onus on having lots of ‘friends’, but for the most part, it’s very surface-level. To truly benefit from friendship, we need face-to-face interactions, not comments, likes and emojis.
With young people increasingly living their lives online, it’s unsurprising loneliness is on the rise among young people. According to the report, younger adults (aged 18-35) experience significantly more social interaction anxiety than older Australians, as well as more depression symptoms (among 18-25-year-olds).
Ways to combat loneliness
Thankfully, due to growing widespread awareness about the negative health impacts of loneliness, there’s plenty of good advice on how to prevent feeling lonely.
One of the best ways to do this is to focus on friendship. Not only does friendship benefit your physical and mental health, a strong, supportive social network can help you live longer, too.
Ellen firmly believes that combating loneliness by prioritising social activities and close connections should be something we consider as equally important as regular exercise and a healthy diet.
“Having a good social network not only lowers the risk of heart disease and dementia, it decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety, while raising life expectancy,” he says.
According to Ellen, although loneliness doesn’t affect our physiology directly, the unhealthy lifestyle choices that people tend to make when lonely can have serious consequences on both their physical and mental wellbeing.
“Things like heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, low energy, poorer sleep and headaches are often more prevalent in people struggling with loneliness. Likewise, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression,” he explains.
The good news is, is it’s never too late to start focusing on friendship and being involved with your local community.
Ellen, who’s helped people struggling with loneliness, offers the following advice.
“If you think you may be suffering with symptoms of anxiety or depression, see your GP. If you feel your loneliness is circumstantial, start researching your local area and look for community programs, groups, volunteering opportunities and courses that interest you.”
“Professional support is also available. A social worker, for example, can help you find suitable community programs, while social skills training may help you tackle feelings of social anxiety, reconnect with people, and forge and maintain new relationships.”
“In order to overcome loneliness, some people may need ongoing practical and emotional support, in which case a mental health professional can help,” says Ellen.
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