I am no stranger to loneliness. The feeling has ebbed and flowed throughout my life as I've weathered different experiences. The beginning of the pandemic brought my most recent – and difficult – bout.
The end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was marked by illness for me. I spent six months in bed ill due to a flare-up of my chronic illness. Most of this time I was alone and yet it was only when I started to feel better that loneliness began to creep in. I currently live in a different country from most of my friends. I had been unable to visit them due to illness and didn’t have the energy to actively keep in touch. When the pandemic hit I had been off work for many months already and was missing the intellectual and creative stimulation I got from my job. I soon realised that my loneliness was defined by this lack of stimulation and connection that was provided by friends and colleagues. I was, I realised, intellectually lonely – and this was only exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
If you are lonely you may think people do not want to talk to you. This is understandable but research shows that, more often than not, people are usually a lot happier after having a conversation with someone.
Loneliness is a complicated emotion and just as people's needs differ, so might the type of loneliness they experience. You might be struggling with 'emotional loneliness' or "the absence of a meaningful relationship with a partner or close friend," says Lexy Matthews, communications officer at the Campaign To End Loneliness. "You can experience this type of loneliness even if you are in a romantic relationship or surrounded by people but you feel like you don’t have a meaningful connection with any of them."
There's also a type of loneliness which Lexy refers to as 'social loneliness'. This, she tells me, is "the lack of a wider social network of friends, family, neighbours or colleagues." She says that many people are struggling with social loneliness during the pandemic as they have been unable to get out and interact with their social network as much as they previously would have been able to.
Your loneliness may also be caused by a lack of intimacy: that special physical or emotional bond you share with another person. With couples being kept apart by the pandemic and relationships crumbling under the strain, it's no wonder that this, too, has been exacerbated over the past few months.
Being able to recognise which form of loneliness you are suffering from, and therefore pinpoint what is missing from your life, can help you combat it. According to Lexy, however, it is not uncommon to fail to realise that you are experiencing loneliness in the first place. "It can look and feel different for everybody, as feelings of loneliness are personal and subjective. Technology and social media can make it easy to hide emotions, limit social interactions and avoid real and meaningful conversations, particularly during COVID when we are relying on technology so much to stay in touch." She adds that our aversion to talking about loneliness is preventing us from fully understanding our feelings. "People who are experiencing loneliness often don’t want to admit how they are feeling. This can be a daunting experience, and pride and independence are important for a lot of us, so asking for help can be even harder."
Loneliness is a normal human emotion; it is simply a sign of wanting contact with people. It is not a personal failing.
Fortunately, there are options if you find that the pandemic has left you experiencing any type of loneliness. Lexy recommends taking some time to really think about which of your personal needs is not being met. Are you craving someone's touch? Small talk? Emotional recognition? Then think about who might be able to help alleviate that. "You could start with a text or a call to catch up. Often if you are lonely you think people do not want to talk to you. This is understandable but research shows that, more often than not, people are usually a lot happier after having a conversation with someone."
Lockdown and the subsequent tier system may have curbed in-person meet-ups but it has given birth to a burgeoning world of online interaction. "There has been a boom in virtual book clubs, quizzes, choirs, even dance classes," says Lexy. "Work out where your interests lie and what virtual activities there are in your local area and then hopefully, when we can meet up again face-to-face, you’ll have made some new virtual connections and friendships in your area which you can cement in person."
Lexy stresses that it is useful to find what works for you and what leaves you feeling "fulfilled and connected".
"I think the most important thing is to stay in touch with those around you, in whatever way works for you." She also reminds me that "loneliness is a normal human emotion; it is simply a sign of wanting contact with people. It is not a personal failing and it’s important not to blame yourself for feeling this way."
The third word I would use to describe 2020 is 'hope'. The coronavirus crisis has turned our lives upside down, from how we work and learn to how we exercise and socialise. It has caused a great deal of hardship and heartbreak for many. But while this trauma has been tough to bear, upheaval provides an opportunity for change. The good news is that the pandemic won’t last forever and with the promise of vaccines on the horizon, there may soon be an end in sight.
So, for now, just focus on getting through. If you are experiencing loneliness, have a think about what it is that you're craving and take steps to fulfil that need. Call your family, check in with your friends, remember to think about yourself – we'll get through this together.
If you are struggling with loneliness which is impacting your mental health, please reach out to your GP or contact Mind.