Supporting Someone Through Loneliness

12 July 2022

Loneliness is defined as cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA defines it as the emotional distress we feel when our inherent needs for intimacy and companionship are not met. This became very evident during the pandemic and periods of isolation and lockdown. Long periods of loneliness can have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Our need to connect with others is deeply hardwired. We are profoundly social creatures and rely on safe, secure social surroundings to survive and flourish. Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress because of a mismatch between the amount of social connection a person wants and the amount they have.

Loneliness is about someone's perception, and we can find that even surrounded by people it’s possible to feel extremely lonely. At the root of all our desires is a need to be loved and to belong.

When we begin to feel lonely, we experience heightened feelings of vulnerability. This disconnection with others impacts our wellbeing, mental and physical health and longevity. Research shows us that loneliness is on the rise, and while technology seems to connect us more than ever, it also can disconnect us from nature, ourselves, and others.

It could be a neighbour, a person from a different cultural background, a friend who has lost a loved one, or a young person at a new University. Knowing the distress and pain socially isolated people feel, it’s understandable to want to be there to support them, but along with the reward of helping, there can also be a cost. Supporting others requires us to open our hearts and minds, to be empathic and vulnerable. It also includes the psychological impact of listening to others who are struggling.

Assisting people in significant emotional pain and distress over a period of time can lead to Compassion Fatigue, a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. It can build up unnoticed although can happen over a short period for some people. Compassion Fatigue can lead to a reduction in our capacity to empathise with the suffering of those being supported.

Signs to be aware of include:

  • Feeling burdened by the other’s suffering
  • Isolating yourself more than usual
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Poor self-care
  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope.

Why is the cost of supporting others so great? Well, good listening is about giving. It’s giving up your time, your energy, and also your agenda. Listening will cost you – and it’s a truly generous gift to give another human being. As our Crisis supporters know, good listening takes time, and the result is genuine connection with another person.

So, what can you do to maintain your wellbeing?

  • Educate yourself about compassion fatigue and be aware of the warning signs.
  • It’s essential to put your own wellbeing first, therefore maintain your regular self-care activities, including having a balanced diet, regular exercise and good sleep.
  • Ensure you have adequate rest and time for yourself. This can be critical in protecting and making you less vulnerable.
  • Set emotional boundaries that allow you to remain compassionate and supportive without taking on another’s pain.
  • Strengthen your resilience to help bounce back from stress.
  • Use positive coping strategies whenever stressed, like deep breathing, meditation, yoga or time with loved ones.

In our modern world loneliness is part of the human condition, but part of the human condition is also to reach out to others. Small, acts of kindness can give you a sense of purpose and make you feel happier and more satisfied about life. Don’t ever under-estimate the value of a chat when someone is feeling lonely. Making conversation about their interests, the weather, paying them a compliment or just chatting can do wonders.

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Written by Susie Biggin