An article by Brenda Brunsdon, Occupational Health and Wellbeing Manager
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative organised every year by the Mental Health Foundation. This year’s theme is loneliness.
Loneliness is recognised as a psychological phenomenon which is occurring increasingly in modern society. However, most people would be shocked to learn that it is a major public health issue which is a factor that leads to premature death.
Research has shown that a person is at the same risk of premature death if they are experiencing stress from loneliness as if they smoke 15 cigarettes a day. Other research has shown that loneliness is a greater predictor of premature death than obesity.
The Covid 19 crisis brought lockdowns and enforced social isolation. Many people are still feeling the effects of this and dealing with more acute, negative feelings of loneliness.
Why does being alone trigger deep negative emotions for human beings? Humans are intrinsically social animals. Going back to the roots of human society, being part of the group or the tribe helped guarantee survival against threats. Being alone was therefore something to be feared. Feelings of loneliness trigger our fight/flight reaction, which means our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol. This makes us feel agitated and anxious and can eventually lead to chronic physical health problems and diseases. Psychologically, perhaps even linked to physiologically, loneliness is akin to feeling hunger or thirst; it stimulates us to rectify a situation which is a threat to our health and safety – in this case, not being part of a group, because there is safety in numbers.
There is evidence to show that living alongside others means that any signs of physical or mental health problems that a person may manifest will be picked up quicker and lead to treatment sooner. Also, acute medical emergencies, like heart attacks or strokes, can be easily missed when a person lives alone, and this can result in early death.
Loneliness has become such an important public health issue that the Government has produced a strategy to alleviate the problems associated with it. It uses data produced by the Office of National Statistics to inform policy and action. Links to information related to both forms of activity can be found below.
We can be alone without being lonely. It is how we feel about being alone that determines the intensity of the negative or positive reaction. If we are happy on our own, we don’t perceive it to be dangerous or sad and we don’t trigger the fight/flight response. If we feel sad about being alone, then it stimulates the stress response. However, few of us like a completely solitary existence. Follow the links below to learn more about loneliness and what you can do, if you wish, to feel more connected with others.
‘Loneliness’; Royal College of Nursing website
‘Feeling Lonely’; NHS website
‘Loneliness’; MIND website
‘Loneliness Annual Report 2022’ HM Government
‘Loneliness – What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely?’ Office of National Statistics
‘7 Types of Loneliness, and Why It Matters’ by Gretchen Rubin on Psychology Today website
‘Feeling Lonely? Discover 18 Ways to Overcome Loneliness’ by Tchiki Davis on Psychology Today website
‘Alone in the crowd – How loneliness affects the mind and body’; Nuffield Health on YouTube
‘Can You Die of Loneliness?’; The Infographics Show on YouTube
‘How to get rid of loneliness and become happy’ by Olivia Remes TED Talk on YouTube