Have you ever felt lonely when in a crowded place? Or has the pandemic created a feeling of loneliness that has been difficult to shake off? You are not the only one – this year has created or heightened numerous anxieties for individuals, and loneliness is one of them. Seeing others having group Zoom calls may make you question your current friendships, or lack of – this may deepen feelings of isolation, and you may find yourself having negative thoughts about yourself.
What is loneliness?
We have all felt lonely at some point in our lives, but at what point does loneliness become more problematic? Experiencing loneliness is a very individual and unique experience; some people may be perfectly happy with living alone and yet some may find that incredibly difficult.
Feeling lonely or isolated is not a mental health problem in itself, however, it can create symptoms of anxiety or depression. It has been documented that loneliness is not necessarily about being alone; it is more about how an individual feels. Even if you have numerous work colleagues and a large family, you might not necessarily feel as though you connect with them and this could lead someone to feel lonely. There are several causes of loneliness; physical distance, divorce, relocation, low self-esteem and bereavement. Sometimes individuals can feel lonely if they are already struggling with a pre-existing mental health condition, particularly if they feel misunderstood.
Even though New Zealand is out of lockdown, the affects of could still be present. Maybe lockdown created a cycle of negative thinking that is difficult to break away from? Are those negative thoughts preventing you from connecting with others? Feeling isolated can create many difficult emotions that can be hard to sit with.
Low self esteem
Isolation can occur if individuals struggle with low self-esteem, as they believe that they are not worthy of the attention that they are receiving. This might lead to withdrawal, and therefore feed into anxiety. If you struggle with low self-esteem, you may have noticed that your thoughts tend to be negative. You might notice yourself thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m bad at my job”,“I am worthless”. Maybe seeing your social media full of other people engaging in group zoom calls has led you to think “I have no friends” and “I am alone”.
These are prime examples of what negative thoughts look like. People can categorise their thinking style into an unhelpful thinking habit. A few examples of these might be;
• Catastrophising; focuses on thinking of the worst-case scenario
• Personalisation; putting the blame on yourself for something that was not your fault
Unhelpful thinking habits
Personalisation and black and white thinking might apply for someone who is experiencing isolation. Black and white thinking, sometimes known as all or nothing thinking, looks at the idea of something being true or false, which results in individuals not being able to see the grey. This might link with negative thinking as people paint themselves in a negative light, and very rarely see the positives about themselves.
Understanding your thinking habit allows you to change it from unhelpful to helpful. Once we begin to challenge our thoughts, our outlook on like will begin to alter with it.
Ways in which you can overcome loneliness
A good way to start is to understand what loneliness means to you. Recognising that loneliness is the root cause of your anxiety or low mood could be a sign that something needs to change. Identifying the root cause then allows space for you to consider how this is impacting your life. It might be useful to write down your thoughts and feelings whilst engaging in this activity – externalising your emotions allows us to make sense of them. It allows us to see them from a different perspective.
Challenging negative thoughts
This technique involves analysing your thoughts with the aim of altering the way you think about yourself. As previously suggested, thought challenging involves keeping a log of your thoughts. This allows you to notice patterns in your thinking – as experiencing your thoughts internally makes us view our thoughts as facts, rather than opinion.
The idea is to write down evidence for and against your thought. An example might be, I believe that “I have no friends”, with this thought on paper, we can begin to analyse just how factual it is. You need to write down what evidence supports this fact – the first fact you might present may be, “I only have a few friends, rather than a big group” this might make you feel more isolated. A second fact might be, “people have forgotten about me”. You might believe this as many your close friends have been in touch less frequently – globally, there has been a lot of information for us to absorb. Maybe your friends have needed time to process the pandemic, resulting in a feeling of distance.
None of this evidence suggests that you have no friends. Here's an article on challenging negative thoughts.
Next, we can begin to look at what facts go against this thought. A few facts might be – “my friends have been in touch every week”, this might not be as regular as other people portray on social media, but this does not make their friendship any less important. Another fact might be, “even though I only have a handful of friends, this does not need to be viewed as a negative”correct - sometimes, friendship is about quality not quantity. Having a handful of friends should not be viewed any differently to having twenty friends. Our connections with others are personal to us – maybe you prefer forming deeper connections. Maybe working from home and seeing less of your colleagues has fed into this belief, and maybe yourself or your friends do not like speaking on the phone so therefore this may translate into them not caring. These are all important facts that are worth considering before concluding that you are isolated. From all of this information we have gathered, we need to form a more positive fact for you to consider – “just because my friends have been in touch less frequently does not mean that they do not care. Even though I have fewer friends than some, does not mean that I am alone”. This is a useful technique to include in your day-to-day life to combat your negative and unhelpful thinking habits.
As we get older, sometimes friendships are outgrown and we lose contact with people. Maybe you have found yourself wanting to re-connect with old friends, or make new ones. It can be daunting putting yourself out there – we feel that we make ourselves vulnerable and we fear rejection. Revisiting the unhelpful thinking habits could be useful at this point, instead of catastrophising, think about what could happen. If you do reach out to old friends, or join that new exercise or art class that you’ve wanted to try, then you could gain confidence, skills and friends. Always remember, take smaller steps to reach your bigger goal.