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Coping with Loneliness over Christmas

Added 25 Nov 2018

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a negative emotional response to perceived social isolation. “Perceived” is the critical word in this definition because loneliness is dependent on how we evaluate, or perceive, our social lives.

For example;

An individual can live alone in a small country town and have limited social contact with people. However, they may have many animals, and see people occasionally when they head to the shops, or go to the pub. This person does not perceive their situation as problematic and may feel happy with the amount of social interaction they have. Therefore, they do not feel lonely.

Another individual, who lives in the city surrounded by people, has many friends and many family members may still feel lonely. This person may feel like no one understands them or cares about them. This person perceives their social life as “not good enough”, and thus feels isolated.

Others may feel isolated because they have nobody they can talk to, or because they have had a recent break-up, or a loved one has died. Essentially, loneliness is a result of a perception of not having enough social connectedness, rather than how socially isolated a person is.

Why is loneliness painful?

Human beings have evolved as social creatures, living in tribes, communities and families for thousands of years; our primate ancestors also live in these social communities. It is believed that our brains have developed to seek social connectedness because of our ancestry. However, this day and age we do not live in tribes (most of us), and we move out of our family homes when we become adults. We do not need to live in groups for survival anymore; we can simply rent our own place and remain relatively solitary. Despite this, our brains still crave social interaction, as if we need it for survival. Other animals, which have evolved to be solitary (tigers, turtles, owls etc.) do not experience loneliness because their brains do not react negatively to solitude. However, putting a person, or another social animal (i.e. a dog), in isolation for an extended period will result in genuine distress.

Whilst we are biologically wired to be social, living alone and being introverted is perfectly okay if a healthy level of social interaction is included in your life. Whilst we need social interaction, we do not necessarily need the perfect family and hundreds of friends.

Feeling isolated, alone and helpless is terribly painful. It can make us feel worthless and unlovable. This is often because we believe that we should have lots of close friends, a perfect relationship and a happy family. This is the picture portrayed to us through movies, TV and the media. It can be very helpful to realise that it is okay to be introverted and spend time alone. Many people lead very happy and productive lives while living alone. Whilst you can, and should, pursue meaningful relationships if you want them, removing the stigma of living a life of solitude can provide some relief. 

Why does loneliness feel worse over Christmas?

This picture of the ideal social life is particularly evident over Christmas, where TV ads show happy families sharing Christmas presents, kids and dogs playing and everybody socialising. This emphasis on spending time with others can cause those who feel lonely to feel much worse than usual.

Addressing Loneliness

1.       Changing our perception of periods of solitude.

We all feel alone during different periods of our life, perhaps we experienced a break-up, a loved one died or a friend moved overseas. This can cause us to feel depressed or angry. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we can try to view our situation in a way that empowers us. We can view our period of aloneness as an opportunity, an opportunity to grow into a better and stronger person. Many of us may feel that we could be doing better, looking after ourselves more, working harder and living life more passionately. When we have more time to ourselves, we can take that time to do the things that will benefit us, such as:

-          Beginning an exercise routine

-          De-cluttering the house

-          Starting a creative passion project

-          Seeing a psychologist (if we struggle with mental health)

-          Quitting our bad habits (smoking, drinking, drugs, TV, Food etc.)

If we take the time and effort to grow into stronger, happier people, then we will be more likely to develop meaningful relationships when the opportunities present themselves.

2.       Get out of the House!

Meeting people and building meaningful relationships is the true antidote to loneliness. Even with the internet, it is hard to build truly rewarding relationships from your living room. That is why it is important to get out of the house and try to interact with the outside world as much as you can. Some ways to do this include:

-          Walking to the local café each morning to have a coffee and read a book or the paper

-          Signing up for local art classes, book clubs, sports clubs, martial arts classes, community theatre groups or group exercise sessions

-          Volunteer; Offer your support down at a local soup kitchen or other non-for-profit organisation.

There are many other ways to interact with the world, the more you get out of the house, the better!

Over the Christmas period, and on Christmas day, volunteering is a beautiful way to spend time with people if you do not have family or friends to spend time with. By volunteering at an organisation such as the Salvation Army, you are providing much need compassion to people struggling, and you get the benefit of interacting with these people, and other volunteers, instead of staying home during Christmas.

3.       Get a pet!

Pets can be amazing companions, especially if you choose the right type of animal. A dog or a loving cat may provide more emotional support than a guinea pig or a snake!

Specifically, dogs appear to provide the most benefit to people because:

-          They increase physical activity because they need walking everyday

-          They provide companionship because they are very social animals that grow strong bonds with people

-          They help people socialise, as dogs will stop and smell each other on walks, allowing the owners to meet each other

-          Provide happiness and fun inside the home, which may otherwise feel empty to those living alone

-          Adds structure, purpose and responsibility to owners, as you must care for your dog, whether it be feeding, walking or grooming.

Written By Darcy – ADAVIC Volunteer

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