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The lonely planet? When loneliness tips over into social isolation

Earlier in May, I wrote about Mental Health Week and its central theme of loneliness. I explored how loneliness can exist in many different forms and locations, including at work, out in the community, and online. Just because we are surrounded by people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we do not feel lonely from time to time, or even more frequently than that. While this is a sobering thought on its own, in cases where the right support and intervention is lacking, loneliness can tip over into something even more dangerous. Social isolation.   You’ll notice I said ‘social isolation’, not simply ‘isolation’. That’s because people can be physically isolated (alone), yet not feel lonely. Sometimes, it can be refreshing to take a break away from other people for a while if you are feeling under pressure from too many demands on your time and energy. However, the danger comes when you feel unable to reconnect with people once you are ready to come back into company again.[1] That is when social isolation can kick in and start to cause some very real challenges for both physical and mental health.

What is social isolation?

  While loneliness is a very human, emotional feeling around a perceived gap between a person’s actual and desired levels of human contact, social isolation is a more objective concern. It happens when a person doesn’t have many, or even any people to turn to for friendship, company or, indeed, any kind of meaningful connection. Some people prefer a smaller number of contacts, while others thrive on a wider circle of people to interact with. Either way, if someone finds themselves unable to identify a friend they feel able to invite for a coffee, a work colleague to ask for feedback on a project or a family member to help with some DIY at home, these are indicators of social isolation. A small circle of contact is one thing; a non-existent one is quite another.   The link between loneliness and social isolation is strong. It stands to reason that someone with fewer or no social contacts will often feel lonely more quickly than people with lots of human connections and support. Loneliness has a huge detrimental effect on mental health, including feelings of sadness and anxiety, as well as loss of confidence and motivation. It can also affect physical wellbeing too, bringing with it loss of appetite, muscle tension, high blood pressure, insomnia and stress.[2]

How to spot the signs of social isolation

By its very nature, social isolation is not always the easiest of issues to spot. People who are in the throes of becoming isolated tend to withdraw from society and it can be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ if we aren’t careful. A fragile state of mind, coupled with perhaps a less assertive personality or lack of energy or motivation to raise the alarm makes it far harder for someone in this position to ask for help. While social media is a wonderful thing in many ways, it can stop us from realising when someone is withdrawing from our lives physically.   So, it is vital that we all make a concerted effort to notice who is in our lives and whether or not they appear connected to others, or are suddenly slipping out of our view. Spotting the issue in ourselves can be even harder. It isn’t easy to admit falling into social isolation, nor reaching out for help when other people seem to be moving further and further out of reach.   Spotting the signs of social isolation is about more than noticing someone isn’t coming to the pub after work quite so much. The associated challenges to mental health can permeate into other areas of life besides joining in social gatherings. Some warning signs to watch out for include[3]:  
  • Boredom, lack of interest and withdrawal from conversations
  • Poor habits around eating and nutrition
  • Stopping exercise or physical activities once enjoyed
  • Worsening hygiene or personal appearance
  • Clutter in the home, signs of hoarding and disrepair
  Each of these signs may not be indicative of social isolation on their own, but if you notice more than one in yourself or someone else, this could be the start of something more serious.

How to support someone at risk of social isolation

Early intervention is a key part of preventing someone from slipping from feelings of loneliness into social isolation. Connecting with people around us is especially important. Whether that means checking in on people to see how they are doing, including them in social media messages and messaging groups or making sure they are on the list when a fun event is planned, showing that you care could make a huge difference to someone feeling isolated. At work, asking someone’ opinion on a project, making them a mid-morning tea or including them in your lunch plans can help them feel part of the team.   Encourage the person to spend more time outdoors. Sunlight, fresh air and natural surroundings should go some way towards lifting the spirits, reducing stress and helping to encourage positive feelings.[4] Many people report similar benefits from spending time with animals. Stroking a cat, petting a dog or simply watching fish glide around an aquarium can help someone at risk of social isolation and loneliness feel better connected to the world around them. Other things that can help include activities commonly connected to improving physical health. So, encouraging a good diet (can you invite them to eat out or cook some meals together?), regular exercise (how about joining a new sports club or signing up to exercise classes together?) and plenty of time spent on personal grooming. This latter idea will generally help people feel better, as well as more confident in their appearance so they are more inclined to get out and connect with people socially.   If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s risk of feeling lonely or becoming social isolated, there are some excellent resources online that could help you reach out for the support you need. You can find some links at the end of my blog: Mental Health Awareness Week – Protect and connect to combat loneliness

How Coaching can help

At times it can be hard to see the wood from the trees and to identify what the issue is that has led to us feeling lonely or we feel that life is not quite thriving anymore. Spending time with a coach can help you identify the cause and set a good plan on how to move forward to overcome any challenges. Having a good sounding board can also support our thinking process as we verbalise our thoughts, great questioning can get us to process our challenges through our heads, heart and gut intelligences which can bring more awareness, and deeper transformation. While counselling is a great option for those who are experiencing mental ill-health and I highly recommend getting this support, coaching can support this process too and for those who just need a little boost, coaching can be just the catalyst you need to create a life you love. To explore if coaching is for you then click here 👉 Let’s Connect     [1] Source: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/loneliness-isolation-understanding-the-difference-why-it-matters/. Accessed 29 May 2022. [2] Source: https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wellbeing/a34295947/physical-symptoms-loneliness/. Accessed 29 May 2022. [3] Source https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2018/social-isolation-symptoms-danger.html. Accessed 29 May 2022. [4] Source: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/. Accessed 29 May 2022.

Post Author: Gayle Young