Mental Health Awareness Week 9-15th May 2022- How can I cope with loneliness and isolation?
lt's Mental Health Awareness week (9-15th May 2022) which is hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. This years theme is 'Loneliness' which is something that is impacting a significant number of people just now. Many people have mentioned to us that they had become so used to isolating over the course of the pandemic that they are now afraid to be out and about again and are also suffering from loneliness.
The pandemic has been so challenging. We’ve been told to ‘stay in’ and ‘stay safe’ for the last two years now. It’s no wonder then that when restrictions have eased a little and we’re told we can come out again, we can find we are scared to do so. Just after the first lot of restrictions eased, I ended up in Buchanan Street in Glasgow and I was really struck by the physiological response my body had. I knew logically that it was hopefully ‘safe enough’ to be out, but my brain and body didn’t believe me. Our brains are wired to keep us safe, to look for threat and danger and to prime our bodies to respond to this. This is why we can experience symptoms of panic, like a racing heart, shortness of breath and feelings of fear - our bodies are getting flooded with energy, ready to fight, freeze or to run away from danger, to help keep us alive.
What we know is that by being gentle with ourselves, and by gradually, at our own pace, taking steps to face what we’re afraid of, we can re-train our brains and bodies to know that we are ‘safe enough’ to re-engage with daily activities after all (restrictions & guidelines permitting, obviously!) This might look different for everyone. You might want to start by spending a short time in your garden if you have one, or just spending a short time outside if you don’t. Or it might be more about working up to spending more time in indoor or social situations. If you gradually increase the time you spend doing the things that make you anxious, hopefully what you’ll notice is that your anxiety reduces and it becomes easier to take the next (harder) step. It can be helpful to imagine it like rungs on a ladder – with what would be most difficult at the top, and what would be least difficult at the bottom. Then working out what would fit on each of the rungs of the ladder in between, depending on how easy or difficult it feels. Buchanan Street might actually have been at the top of my ladder, if I’d thought about it! It would have kinder on myself to re-train my brain and body by starting in my local area and working up slowly to a more daunting trip to town!
Another strategy which can be helpful is developing awareness (or ‘mindfulness’) of how we feel and what’s going on in the present moment. This can help us to not get caught up in the ‘what if’s’ of the past and future and the emotion or worries which come with that. Deliberately taking the time to notice the world around us such as the leaves growing on the trees, the smell and taste of our coffee, the feel of a fluffy jumper, takes practice and perseverance but can help us to stay calm and centred when we are struggling emotionally.
Also, when we struggle with mood, we can sometimes make things even worse by negatively judging ourselves. It’s important to remember that we are humans, not robots! As such we respond as humans to stressful and distressing life experiences. Developing compassion for ourselves and allowing ourselves to feel how we feel, without blame, is vital for our mental wellbeing. When you notice you are speaking harshly to yourself, remind yourself that you are human and that it is okay to experience a range of feelings, even if they are painful. Try to be kind to yourself and engage in positive and soothing activities.
Working on opening up your world again will hopefully also help to tackle the loneliness that comes with restrictions and fear. Connecting with others is hugely important for humans, and loneliness can take a real toll on our mental health. It can be hard to contemplate making these changes, but contacting local groups or organisations, finding out about what’s going on in the local area and maybe working up to joining in with some of these things using the steps above, could be helpful. A possible first rung on the ladder for this might be suggesting going for a socially distanced walk with a neighbour or someone you know? Or taking part in an online class, a real life meet-up or a new exercise class? There are likely to be other people who feel the same way you do, and they might be glad you’ve reached out and made that connection.
If you feel that psychological distress is getting in the way of living your life, you may wish to seek further input for your mental health and wellbeing. Psychological practitioners can help you develop an understanding of your difficulties and to develop tools and techniques to manage them, using evidence-based psychological interventions. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one such therapy, which helps you to understand how what you do and what you think affects how you feel. There many different types of therapy available depending on your particular needs.
How can I access more help?
You can talk to your GP about accessing psychological therapies through local NHS Services. If you would prefer to seek help privately, there are a range of wellbeing practitioners (including clinical/counselling psychologists, CBT therapists, counsellors and complementary therapists) who practice from The Wellbeing Rooms, Bearsden & Stepps, and can be contacted through The Wellbeing Rooms website. There are also our blogs, and vlogs such as ‘I can’t stop worrying! What can I do about it?!’ and ‘Coping with my mental health: what can I do and when and how do seek professional help?’ and a link to our webinar ‘I’m Exhausted! How do we all move on from Covid?!’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdwWl8bgEmw) These are all freely accessible and have been designed to share more information, tips and techniques to help with mental wellbeing.
We hope they can be helpful.