The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 is relationships. Relationships are absolutely fundamental for fostering good mental health and promoting wellbeing. We cannot flourish without strong relationships: shockingly, loneliness can increase mortality by 26%. We live in a social media paradox; it enables us to connect with others instantaneously, yet leaves us more emotionally disconnected than ever.
In our modern life, loneliness is booming. The dining room table is an object of the past, we touch our phones more than touching one another and social media has become a replacement for human interaction. Loneliness is not solely consigned to the elderly, the Mental Health Foundation has found that in the UK, one in 10 of us experiences loneliness. Despite the majority of our nation living in close proximity with their neighbour (Britain's communities are packed into a relatively small 229,800 km2 of the Earth) we still have been voted the loneliness capital of Europe.
So why are we getting lonelier? Could it be that our growing reliance on social technology is to blame rather than face to face interaction? Meaning we feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding. Let's admit it- it's far easier to write a half-hearted message of condolence or "thinking of you" sentiment in less than 140 characters on Twitter rather than braving an uncomfortable conversation or making the effort to see one another.
Social pain is as existent and real for us as physical pain; researchers have discovered that loneliness and rejection stimulates the same parts of the brain as physical pain. From eating lunch alone, to losing a loved one- loneliness affects all us at some point in our lives. This experience of loneliness is useful to us as it motivates us to reconnect with others and to seek out new friendships to reduce the social discomfort and pain that we feel. But what happens when reconnection is not easy or even possible? For some, long bouts of isolation can result in an uncomfortable, harrowing state of loneliness for a number of years or worse, a lifetime. Typical figures of experiencing loneliness in this prolonged state range from 3-30%. Research has uncovered that enduring loneliness impacts on health in a greater way than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity does.
So what can be done to diminish our loneliness, help us reconnect in more meaningful ways?
Common sense approaches and simplistic solutions such as increasing your friendship group, or going out more often can be more damaging than helpful- surrounding yourself with more people does not make you feel less lonely. Loneliness is about the quality of our relationships and not the quantity, many who experience loneliness can be blessed with many friendships, but still find that their needs for intimacy and social interaction are not met. Famous actors and celebrities, who we assume have multitudes of friendships often familiar with deep loneliness and despair. The tragic deaths of Robin Williams and Amy Whinehouse are just a few examples.
Even though there doesn't seem to be a straightforward antidote to long term loneliness. There are some simple ways to stay emotionally connected to those around you.
Make a resolution
Resolutions aren't just for January the 1st, the Mental Health Foundation have created a relationship resolution which you fill out online- it only takes a small action, whether it's phoning a friend every day, reducing the amount of time you spend on your phone- they will update and send you messages to ensure your resolution stays on track.
Know your worth
Filling up your social calendar isn't enough for those who have been lonely for a number of years, as they may experience anxiety over making new friends, they may be distrustful of others and have low self-esteem. Instead, they need support to change their view of themselves, and how they feel others will react to them. We need to know our worth and believe that we are worthy of other's time and friendships.
Hug it out
Studies have found that lack of affectionate physical contact is associated with higher levels for stress hormones of inflammation. Social contact can have profound physiological effects. Simply holding a loved one's hand lowers blood pressure and reduces pain. It may not transform your life- but sometimes the humble hug can have significant effect on elevating mood.
We are built for social interaction. The repercussions of loneliness are severe and life threatening. This Mental Health Awareness Week, reach out for laughter, for intimacy and for real connection.Suggest a correction