Loneliness is a growing epidemic in the UK with 2.4 million adults feeling lonely, according to recent data from the Office for National Statistics. But what's this doing to our physical health? And how can you help yourself if you feel lonely?
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, with over half of all people aged 75 and over living alone. Two fifths of all older people - around 3.9 million - say the TV is their main company. Older generations aren't the only age groups affected, though. Young adults are more likely to feel lonely than older age groups, with almost 10% of people aged 16 to 24 'always or often' lonely.
"Loneliness is one of the most deeply painful human experiences. It impacts on both our psychological and physical well-being as the two are inextricably linked," says Linda Boutet, counsellor and psychotherapist and member of the Counselling Directory.
"Loneliness can cause us to feel 'outsiders', experiencing life in a solitary bubble, unable to connect with others; it can make us mistakenly believe we are somehow failures in life, and can cause us to physically ache for human contact.”
Loneliness and our health
Boutet adds that the effect of loneliness on physical health is as devastating as its psychological impact.
"Scientific research now shows that chronic sustained loneliness decreases our body's ability to cope with illness via our immune system, whilst increasing our risk of heart disease and stroke," she explains. "We may physically feel 'slower' when we are lonely and this can, in turn, lead to impaired cognitive functioning."
There is also a strong link between feeling lonely and mental illness. Although loneliness in itself isn't a mental health problem, people with a mental health problem may feel lonely - and feeling lonely may have a negative impact on someone's mental well-being.
"Struggling with a mental health problem can be isolating, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health," says Rachel Boyd, information manager at Mind.
"Your self-esteem may be low, making it hard to keep up social contact, or you may feel too low or exhausted to spend the time you would normally on hobbies or activities that connect you to others."
Why are we so lonely?
There are a number of reasons why loneliness appears to be a growing problem. Some argue that there is a lack of community within modern society, which discourages people from connecting with one another.
High living costs and stagnant wages may also be part of the problem, as these factors can prevent people from socialising. Although we are on constant virtual contact with people via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, numerous studies have shown social media can increase feelings of loneliness.
Freddie Cocker, 24, founder of the mental health platform Vent, says his loneliness is triggered in different situations.
"Sometimes if I'm on my way home from a night out on my own and there's a couple opposite me or if there's a group of friends chatting and enjoying each other's company, that can make me feel quite lonely and isolated," he says.
"Other times it could be if I decide to stay at home and I'm in my room on my own alone with my thoughts. I'm highly extroverted and live with depression, anxiety and chronic overthinking so my mind will often to drift to the fun nights other people might be having or the experiences my friends are doing without me."
Cocker adds that being online can make it worse. "The danger with that is getting lost in social media and the perils that come with that - humble-bragging, narcissistic, boastful posts about how great someone's life is."
He adds that he has a supportive friendship group, but loneliness can still take its toll.
"It makes you think you're smaller than you are, under-appreciated or unworthy of love or friendships," Cocker says. "Loneliness makes you think you have no friends, even though you might have loads who love and support you."
How to help yourself
Connect with others
"Connecting up with others may seem impossible when we feel lonely, and yet this is what we need to do to break what may have become a cycle," Boutet says. "Dwelling on our feelings of loneliness can be unhelpful - we need to actually reach out. By doing so we are taking care of ourselves."
If he is feeling lonely, Cocker says he usually starts a conversation with someone he hasn't spoken to for a while.
"It might not be a deep conversation but it's just something to keep my mind distracted and for it to tell me that there are some people out there who care about what's going on in my life."
Do something you enjoy
Making time for things you like, whether that is exercise or a hobby, can help alleviate loneliness, Boutet explains.
"When we are busy doing something we enjoy, such as an evening class or a local gym session, we can connect up and feel brighter," she says. "Too much time spent online can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness so perhaps we can log off and go out into the real world. Looking after our physical health is also vital, so healthy eating and exercise are important."
"While you may not feel like it, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels," Boyd adds.
"Research shows outdoor exercise, such as cycling or jogging, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. Taking part in a group activity like cycling or basketball can help you meet new people too. Visit Get Set to Go to see if there are any groups in your area; if not, you could look at your Local Mind to see if there is something in your area."
Cocker says going to the gym is also a massive help, as it helps him stick to a routine and meet new friends. "It's a supportive community, not a stereotypical pretentious gym," he adds.
Volunteering is a good way to meet others. "If you are able to, helping out with a charity or good cause can improve your self-esteem, and give you a chance to meet new people, reducing feelings of isolation," Boyd says. "For information on local volunteering opportunities, visit www.do-it.org.uk (which lists volunteer positions within 5 km of your postcode), ask at your local library, or keep an eye on your local newspapers."
How to help others
If you think someone is struggling with loneliness, there are ways you can help them too.
"Reach out to them, face-to-face if possible but, if not, just talking over the phone shows you're willing to invest time into making sure they're alright," Boyd says. "Offer to go to a class or group activity with them. You don't need to join in but even helping them get there can be supportive."
It's important to listen to what they have to say, though, and not to make assumptions. "People can feel lonely even if it looks like they have a busy and full life. Letting people be honest about feeling lonely can help them understand what's going on, and start to think of ways to feel better," she adds.
Where to get support
Visit your GP
Your GP can help you manage the impact loneliness can have on your mental health and suggest the right course of action for you.
"If our loneliness is related to a relationship breakdown, unemployment or health issues, then talking with your GP can be a first step," Boutet says. "If we are lonely within relationships, then talking with a counsellor can help us to understand our feelings."
"Reach out - if you can arrange to meet up with a friend or family member face-to-face then do, but if not just talking over the phone can make a big difference," Boyd says. "You could also think about finding people to connect to in other ways, like through Mind's online community, Elefriends."