Loneliness is often described as an epidemic. Combine it with a pandemic and it’s no surprise that lockdown and social distancing have left millions of us feeling isolated.

In April, almost a quarter of adults living in the UK were said to have experienced loneliness, when pre-lockdown only one in 10 felt that way. Indeed, when we recently asked our LinkedIn followers what they felt was the biggest challenge of living and working from home in rural areas, loneliness was among the top responses.

Now, following the Government’s 22 September announcement of new measures – curbing social gatherings, asking us to work from home over the winter and introducing a curfew for restaurants, social clubs and bingo halls – it’s likely most of us will struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness yet again.

Feeling lonely is part of the human experience. At some point in our lives, we all experience it – but that’s not to say dealing with it is easy.

This is especially true in rural areas where feelings of isolation can be exacerbated by vast physical distances, fewer opportunities to socialise and – particularly in a lockdown situation – limited internet connectivity.

Younger generations are especially impacted, and are three times more likely to feel lonely than over 65s.

To learn how to cope with loneliness, especially in rural communities, Voneus spoke with Wendy Brook, mental health expert and Director of Merulae, who lives in a rural village herself and has worked with many people living in similar settings. She explained how we can help ourselves as well as others, the key misconceptions and the role of technology in combatting loneliness.

 

How to recognise loneliness in yourself and others

“Firstly, there’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Solitude can be healthy or be seen as self-care, but when you realise you’re craving company, a good old chinwag or are even going as far as thinking “nobody would notice if I wasn’t here” – that’s a natural human reaction to not having enough connection”, Wendy explains. “In the same way you might feel out of your depth in a room full of strangers, it is perfectly possible to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. This is because loneliness stems from a lack of connection.

“Human beings are social animals. We are put together to connect with others,” Wendy says. “If someone you know starts behaving differently, this can be an early indicator of loneliness, anxiety or depression. This could be a family member who has changed their eating habits, an energetic friend who has become dismissive, a level-headed roommate who is suddenly irritable or a punctual co-worker who starts turning up late. If you pick up on any of these signs it’s then a good opportunity to ask “What’s happening for you right now? Are you okay?”

Yet starting these conversations comes with its own set of challenges, both for the person who’s feeling lonely, and for the person who has spotted a change in behaviour.

 

Why we need to talk about our feelings and really listen to others

“With so much stigma and discrimination surrounding conversations about mental health, it’s no surprise that many of us feel uneasy, or even guilty, about sharing our feelings – or asking others how they are feeling. We’d talk about it if we’d just been diagnosed with diabetes or if we’d broken a leg,” Wendy points out. “We’ve got to be able to start to say, you know what, I don’t know why but I’m just not feeling great this week.

“Opening up about your own feelings will give someone else the permission to speak about their emotions, which is hugely powerful – it’s the only way to break the stigma surrounding loneliness.

“Connected to this is the fact that we can never be sure what others are struggling with. The same way a broken leg is obvious, so is the advice one might give – cheer up, in eight weeks’ time the plaster comes off an you’ll be fine! But with issues that are not immediately visible to the eye, the right response can hide in plain sight, too.”

People often don’t know what to say, and some might not say anything at all for the fear of making matters worse – Wendy is quick to underline what a dreadful misconception this is. “You will not make it worse. If you give someone permission to cry in front of you, you haven’t made it worse. Releasing that emotion is the natural human reaction.”

So, what should you do when someone opens up about their feelings?

Listen!

Listen to understand, not to reply or to offer a solution. The single most powerful thing you can do is make the other person feel heard.

“You don’t need to offer positive advice or have the solutions – we’re not the same, so the advice that might work for you can be someone else’s idea of hell. Being empathic, saying “I hear you”, is often enough to give people the clarity needed to arrive at their own solutions.”

Wendy suggests asking, “have you thought about what you might be able to do that you’d really enjoy or would find relaxing?” – to get them thinking.

 

The role of technology: Connecting via the internet is a lifeline for rural communities

There are plenty of positives and negatives about having the whole online world just one click away. Public personas displayed on social media, internet trolls and heightened social anxiety, especially among teenagers, are some of the worst examples of what the internet brings – but they are only a small part of the overall picture.

Internet connectivity can be a lifeline for people struggling with loneliness and isolation, especially in rural areas where some get barely any face-to-face human contact in a week.

During lockdown, millions of Britons were forced to socially distance and/or self-isolate. For people who live alone or in already cut-off areas, any further limit to human contact can really take its toll, especially when coupled with the higher levels of anxiety many of us have about Covid.

To counter lockdown loneliness, many have turned to the internet. A video chat – or even just an audio call – can give an enormous boost to one’s mental wellbeing. “When it comes to the opportunities to connect on the internet, any communication is better than no communication”, Wendy explains.

“There are lots of websites and Facebook pages where people who have difficulties and dilemmas around loneliness and any mental or emotional distress can come together. This can be great to share coping strategies or just to read someone else’s story which resonates with your own and makes you think, goodness, I’m not alone, somebody else knows how this feels!”

For Wendy, working in a rural area, a decent broadband connection has meant she could continue to help people coping with mental health issues. “I have undoubtedly connected with more people who are living with mental illness since the beginning of lockdown. Before the outbreak, they wouldn’t have contemplated visiting a counselling room for a face-to-face session, but they are more comfortable speaking to me – or someone like me – online, from the comfort of their own home. It might not be face-to-face, but these connections are vitally important. The role of the internet in this is key – especially in rural areas.”

 

We’re only human, so just try your best and sleep

Building human connections is the key to dealing with loneliness, but without the right connections to the right people, this approach might not be as effective as you’d like. The downside of this is that not every chat or counselling session will be helpful – sometimes you just don’t get on with the other person, but that doesn’t make you a failure. Keep looking until you find what works for you.

As parting advice, here are three tips from Wendy to prevent yourself from going down the rabbit hole:

  1. Rely on your support network. Be aware of who or what you have access to – whether that’s locally, in your community or online. This is already in place for you, so if loneliness starts creeping in, you already know where you can reach out.
  2. Notice your ‘stress signature.’ We’ve all got a way of being that is typical to us when we’re very stressed but not quite distressed. The more we understand our own stress signatures, the better we’ll be at managing our mental health.
  3. Sleep will impact your mental health more quickly than any other single factor – so just take it easy, you’ve got this!

Wendy is a founding director of Merulae Ltd, which provides training, counselling, psychotherapy and clinical governance. She is a practicing counsellor working with a person and their lived experience, in particular trauma. Wendy is a contracted national workplace associate for Mental Health First Aid England and delivers adult/workplace and youth/education courses. Previously she managed a charity in Shropshire specialising in Mental Health Advocacy, where she became a qualified Independent Mental Health Advocate. You can contact Wendy here, and follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Wendy Brook from Merulae