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What is the real nature of loneliness?

Posted by Hlengiwe Zwane on 16 August 2021 10:05 AM SAST
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As we ease into the new norm, psychotherapist, Ben Amponsah shares some simple things that we can all do to push back against disconnection and its ensuing loneliness.

"I thought I would share with you my thoughts on the nature of isolation and loneliness, particularly as we have experienced them so much recently due to the pandemic and lockdown. Despite all the negative headlines concerning lockdown, some of my clients have actually welcomed it those struggling with social anxiety or autism related issues, for instance , the pressure’s off. However, what I am seeing a lot of, in my practice, is a real link between lack of connection and poor mental health a disconnection."

The nature of isolation and loneliness, for me, is precisely that, we have all known friends or even been in the situation where we are tremendously popular but still feel lonely because it’s not measured, necessarily, in the networks we may or may not have, but rather in the quality of those networks and how connected we may feel to them.

There is also, of course, the physical distancing demanded by the virus and the strict lockdown measures we are only now tentatively easing out of. I note the impact on some of my clients who are educators and in a highly sociable and social profession, of the sheer lack of that face to face contact. People really miss it.

Yet there are some simple things that we can all do to push back against that disconnection and its ensuing loneliness and three that gain much traction with my clients are gratitude, valuing the little things and connection.

1. Gratitude
This is a quality that is underappreciated in anyone’s resilience building toolkit, but there are numerous research studies that show just how effective an antidote this is to depression and how well it acts in boosting feelings of positivity. If the gratitude is allied to what you have been connected to previously then it also acts as a powerful weapon in the fight against loneliness too.

There are a whole bunch of things we can be grateful for such as our health, nature, relationships (some of which we may be taking for granted), exercise/fitness and many more. A really good exercise that I have borrowed from famous psychologist Martin Seligman’s (2005) research is called "3 good things" and it invites you to list at the end of each day three things you can be grateful for. It should come as no surprise that this experiment yielded significant improvements in the subject’s mental health, happiness and concomitant drops in depression levels and feelings of loneliness.

2. Valuing the little things
This is about thinking of all the things that add value to your life and keeping them in mind. This is also an exercise I do with depressed clients, most of whom assure me that there is not anything. We pick over their life in minute detail and, it will come as no surprise, we always shine a light on a few positive things. It is in our nature to gloss over those things that bring positivity, over focusing instead on all the negative stuff this process brings balance to that tendency.

It can be treated like the gratitude diary task, except ask yourself what 3 things on a daily basis brought positivity to your life today, for me it might be: sitting on my balcony in the sunshine as I write this, the high intensity home workout I did this morning and the enduring love and patience of my wonderful husband. It all counts. 

3. Connection
The last tool in our connection toolkit is…connection. Since becoming a therapist that disconnection is depression’s best friend and is one of the first things we often inadvertently do when our mental health starts to suffer: I can not be bothered answering the phone to that friend or going to the cinema when I am feeling low. This, of course, only exacerbates the situation and often leaves us feeling even worse. We have seen, in multiple studies, that connection is essential to wellbeing and a lack of it leads to very poor outcomes.

A recent study showed that disconnection was more of a factor in morbidity than obesity, which is shocking, though not particularly surprising for those of us who work in mental health. So there are multiple ways that we can try and ramp up these connections even during lockdown and they include, technology (Zoom, Skype etc), picnicking when the weather is nice, online gym classes (something I have found particularly useful), online staff meetings or even socials, getting at one with nature, music etc and many more.

I have been struck by how much of a saviour for so many people the internet has been during the lockdown and many people, I suspect, are realising the benefit of a reasonably fast internet connection.

Isolation and loneliness are real and are a threat to our mental health. There are, however, some simple steps we can take to ward it off or reduce it and they could start with gratitude, valuing the little things, and paying attention to connection.

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