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6 Min Read

Mental Health Awareness Week: building meaningful connections

9 May 2022
By
ieso

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and the theme is loneliness. Here are some practical ways to address loneliness in your life...

Did you know that loneliness has been shown to trigger the same areas in the brain as pain? While it isn’t a mental health condition in itself, it can lead to problems such as low mood, low self-esteem, and depression. Its impact should never be underestimated.

This is why we are so pleased that the Mental Health Foundation has made loneliness the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The aim is to explore the effect of loneliness on people’s mental wellbeing, and what they can do to address it. In this post, we are sharing some self-help techniques our clinicians use with patients.

Reconnecting after the pandemic

Feelings of loneliness affect millions of people in the UK and can contribute to poor mental health. Research from the Mental Health Foundation has found that – unsurprisingly –levels of loneliness rose during the pandemic, with many people feeling more isolated and less connected with others.

Lockdowns will have taken their toll on many people’s mental health, exacerbating the sense of separation for those who didn’t have close family or who lived alone, for instance. Some might be finding it hard to ‘reverse’ this and rebuild relationships.

For some people, returning to the workplace and rebuilding relationships can be tricky too. Even if this does not sound relatable to you, there are sure to be colleagues for whom it does. Helping them to reconnect may lead to them contributing to your team goals more fully and improved results.

 

How can people who are feeling lonely reconnect?

Thinking about the social activities, friendships and interactions people enjoyed before the pandemic is a great place to start. People who are feeling disconnected or lonely can start the process of reconnecting by asking themselves:

  • What was important to me before the pandemic?
  • Who was important to me?
  • Why?
  • How can I reconnect with each of those activities and people?

They can then start to make plans to do so, one by one, to build their confidence at their own pace.

Beware of negative thought patterns

It’s not unusual for negative thoughts and predictions to stop people who are feeling lonely from taking the next step and making plans, especially if they have symptoms of low mood, anxiety, or depression.

A common scenario our clinicians witness is a patient contacting a friend they haven’t seen for a while to suggest meeting up, their friend not replying, or saying they’re busy, and the patient interpreting that as their friend doesn't want to see them. Then, having made this assumption, they go on to generalise this experience into ‘nobody can be bothered with me anymore.’ As a result, they become reluctant to contact people, which increases their feelings of isolation.

Our clinicians are trained to help people break these ‘vicious cycles’ by acknowledging the negative thoughts they’re having and challenging them. This is something people can train themselves to do too, by, in this case, for example, simply asking themselves, ‘How probable is it that my friend doesn’t want to talk to me? Is it more likely they have a lot on their plate, or on their mind?'

Asking yourself these questions is a good place to start, but at some point it helps to communicate your needs with someone else.

Find a comfortable way to communicate your needs

Absolutely anybody can feel lonely – not just those who are single or live alone. A lack of meaningful relationships can lead to feelings of isolation, or a belief that we don’t matter, or we don’t ‘belong’. This tends to happen when our needs aren’t being met by the people around us.

Some people struggle to verbalise what they need – which might be intimacy, support, advice, or some help to solve an issue, for example. This could be because it’s difficult for them to put into words, or they don’t feel they can talk about it, perhaps because they’re worried they won’t be taken seriously.

If this is the case, ask yourself:

  • How long have I kept how I’m feeling to myself and tried to ignore it?
  • How has that worked out? Do I owe it to myself to try something different?

You might also have negative beliefs and expectations about sharing what’s on your mind. It’s worth challenging these, asking yourself: ‘How likely is it that the person or people I want to talk to will be bored, or laugh at me, based on my past relationship?’

Prepare yourself to talk to others about how you feel

Before sitting down to talk to someone about how you are feeling, think about what your exact needs are and write these down. Do you want practical help? Ideas? For them to just listen, and acknowledge they’ve heard what you said? For them to agree to work with you to improve something?

When you talk to them, explain why having the need met is important to you. Describe how you feel now, and what you’ll feel if things change.

Ask them to set aside some time for a conversation; you could say you’re struggling with something and would really like to talk about it. This will hopefully put them in the right frame of mind to listen. Make sure neither of you is tired or have had a drink, and choose a comfortable and familiar environment to talk in.

Reframing responses

Sharing your needs won’t always work – sometimes people are simply not prepared to compromise or change how things are. If this happens to you and it leaves you feeling rejected or unloved, thinking about whether they meet your needs in other ways might bring perspective. Do they do other things that support you and make you feel valued? Think about who else you can go to – or where else you can go – to get the particular needs you were asking them to meet met too.

Helpful resources

The Mental Health Foundation has some good resources to help with nurturing relationships, while Mind provides general information on loneliness and where to go for support.

For older people, the Age UK website has plenty of practical advice. And if you are worried about a young person in your life, Young Minds is a great source of information.

Please do seek support if loneliness is making you feel especially down or depressed. You can talk to your GP about what help is available, or you could try online CBT, which is very effective at treating depression – you can find out more about that here.

ieso
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