Are you lonely? You’re not alone
Despite the connective power of social media, statistics show that there's a loneliness epidemic. Why is this? And what can we do to combat this issue, which is at the heart of mental health problems.
Few men are brave enough to admit to being lonely. But Chris, 38, is keen to break the taboo that surrounds what some are calling ‘the virus of the modern age’. “Loneliness makes you feel worthless, that there’s no hope and that only death can stop the pain and sadness” he says. “It’s weird because you’re desperate to talk to someone but you can’t because you’re isolated, depressed and, basically, feel like an insecure bellend.”
Hearing such acute words from someone with a caring family and material wealth is both awkward and bewildering – but that’s precisely how loneliness has crept into our lives. In Chris’ case, it was triggered by the failure of a long-term relationship, loss of companionship and “too many meals for one.”
I felt like my masculinity had been completely uprooted
As his mental health deteriorated, Chris did the sensible thing and turned to the internet for help. When that didn’t work, he ordered a life-sized cardboard replica of his ex from a website called CutoutMe.com. “I used to sit ‘her’ at the table and wrap ‘her’ in a scarf when it got cold. Most people thought it was hilarious, but it was clear I was struggling to face up to life on my own.”
Loneliness, he says, soon become an insidious spiral. “I lost all confidence and felt like my masculinity had been completely uprooted, which developed into a vicious cycle of mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. It’s definitely time that society, and especially men, woke up this before it’s too late.”
Are we in the grip of an epidemic of loneliness?
Moving to a cabin in the wilderness is one of the most popular male fantasies. After all, not having to worry about work, relationships or whether you were mis-sold PPI does have a certain appeal. But being alone, with a campfire and a bottle of Scotch, is very different to being lonely.
Loneliness isn’t fun, carefree or spiritually cleansing. Both UK and US governments have recently declared loneliness to be a public health issue that afflicts generations X and Y as much as little old ladies stranded on stairlifts.
35% of men admit to feeling lonely at least once a week
In January, a study for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness revealed the scale of the epidemic: shockingly, nine million people “always or often feel lonely”. More disturbingly, say scientists, loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can increase your likelihood of death by up to 32%.
Although loneliness isn’t in itself a mental health problem, it can be the root cause of everything from anxiety and depression, to addiction and suicide (now the biggest killer of men under 50). And with 35% of men admitting to feeling lonely at least once a week, chances are you’ll be sucked into this bleak vortex at some point in your life.
What is triggering chronic loneliness?
While divorce and unemployment are the most common causes of loneliness, it seems that today’s individualistic society isn’t helping. The number of us living alone has doubled since 1973, meaning that we increasingly dine alone and – thanks to Facebook – socialise without leaving our bedrooms.
While technology affords us a way to stay ‘super-connected’, it’s also created some dangerous illusions. Namely that friendship can be switched on and off like a tap, and that social media posts reflect the reality of a person’s day-to-day life.
“Social media has led to a complete miscalculation about what it means to be happy.”
“The bottom line” says psychotherapist Gary Bloom, “is that social media has led to a compete miscalculation about what it means to be happy. It has sold a whole generation the superficial idea that you have the right to be permanently happy.”
The other issue, he says, is that we tend to follow people who confirm our view of the world. “Basically, we see our views amplified by everyone around us online. So when those views are challenged in real life, we tend to jump to the victim position, leaving us isolated and longing to retreat back into our technological cocoons.”
The more realistic view of life, argues Bloom, is the depressive position: “10% of your life is fantastic, 10% is shit and the other 80% is ‘alright’.” In short, you’re not a freak just because you’re not making #MASSIVEGAINS in the gym or feeling #BLESSED to be alive.
How can I stop feeling lonely?
In January, the government appointed a ‘Minister for Loneliness’, charged with tackling the problem across all age groups. Great. But what can you do, right now, to beat loneliness? Well, here are three proven coping strategies:
1. “The question young men ask themselves the most”, says Bloom, “is, ‘Am I normal?'” So stop scrolling through unrealistic images on social media – they only amplify feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.
2. “When you’re lonely, you can’t talk to your friends because you’re depressed and losing your identity” says Chris. “So do something that you have fond memories of. I started DJ-ing again, which forced me to talk to strangers and boosted my confidence.”
To face up to our loneliness can be an extremely empowering experience
3. Don’t hide away in your bedroom. Walking around a new city or shopping for something you have absolutely no intention of buying will restore your sense of involvement in society and stop you drowning in isolation.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering that loneliness is part of the human condition. “After all, we come into this world alone and we leave it on our own as well” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “Loneliness can be a teacher. To face up to our loneliness, to embrace it, to befriend it can be an extremely empowering experience.”
“Confronting my loneliness, and discovering that I wasn’t a ‘loon’ or a ‘psycho’, was the start of feeling better and it does feel empowering” agrees Chris. “Also, don’t waste £55 on a cardboard cutout of your ex.”
Gary Bloom (BACP) is an integrative psychotherapist, counsellor and broadcaster. He can be found tweeting at twitter.com/bloomers57
Hilda Burke (UKCP, BACP) is a psychotherapist and life coach. For more information visit www.hildaburke.co.uk
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