This week (June 13-17) is Loneliness Awareness Week, hosted by the Marmalade Trust.
Dr Cecilia Redecka, psychologist at Livi online GP, has shared insights into how loneliness can impact our mental health and how to combat it.
Dr Cecilia explains the difference between loneliness and social isolation, and looks at how social isolation can affect our brains.
How to overcome the effects of social isolation
1. Make social connections a priority
“Although it may seem impossible, making small steps to connect with others is important. There are many forms of friendships – but the key here is quality, not quantity,” explains Dr Radecka. “Arrange to chat to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, or set up a weekly phone call.”
2. Engage in the community
Being part of a community gives us a strong sense of belonging. Why not join a class based on your interests? “Doing activities that we enjoy is good for our mental wellbeing and a way to meet new people,” says Dr Radecka.
Try taking part in a book club, dog-walking group or choir or volunteering at a community garden. One study found that group singing significantly boosts psychological wellbeing.
3. Get moving
“If you’re struggling with social anxiety, keeping physically active can improve your mood and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Dr Radecka. “It boosts the feelgood chemicals in the brain and decreases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.”
4. Ask for help
Dr Radecka urges, “If you feel that social isolation and loneliness are affecting your health, don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends or a health professional.
“A Livi doctor or therapist can evaluate your symptoms and talk you through treatment options available.”
The difference between social isolation and loneliness
“The main difference between social isolation and loneliness is in how people experience them,” says Dr Radecka.
“Social isolation is a state where you have few people to interact with regularly. Loneliness is a feeling, where you can be surrounded by people yet still feel lonely.
“Studies show that it isn’t the quantity but the quality of social interactions that matters. For example, while social media can help us stay connected, it can lead to lower quality interactions,” Dr Radecka explains. “One study found that spending too much time on social media can increase feelings of loneliness.”
It’s not just the elderly who feel lonely
Social isolation disproportionally affects older people, and in some countries, up to 1 in 3 older people are lonely.
“Older adults are at increased risk of loneliness and social isolation due to living alone, the loss of friends or family and poor health,” says Dr Radecka.
However, social isolation can affect us all at some point. For some, being socially isolated comes and goes – perhaps as a consequence of life events, like a death of a loved one, a relationship break-up or moving somewhere new. For others, it’s more long term.
How social isolation affects our mental health
Social isolation is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Mental health issues can also increase your chances of feeling lonely.
There’s even evidence that social isolation can shorten life span. A study found that people who are socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely, regardless of underlying health issues.
However, while social isolation and loneliness can impair our cognitive function, there’s also evidence that re-socialising and making new connections can reverse the negative effects of isolation.
In a recent study conducted during the pandemic, residents who suffered cognitive decline during lockdown quickly recovered when restrictions eased.
Therapy by video link
To improve access to mental health treatment, Livi, the UK’s largest digital healthcare company, has this week launched an Online Therapy service, offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with qualified and accredited mental health practitioners. Appointments can be booked online, and people can see a therapist by video in their own home, at a time that suits them.
George Jones, Director of Mental Health at Livi, said, “England saw a record 4.3 million referrals to mental health services last year, and every month our GPs help thousands of patients with mental health concerns.
“Livi’s new Online Therapy service will improve access to mental health treatment for patients and ease the pressure on NHS services.
“Everyone should have access to the help they need, when they need it, and outstanding digital healthcare can play a vital part in meeting increased demand by improving access and reducing waiting times.”
Partnering with the NHS
Livi partners with the NHS to provide video appointments with GPs and other health professionals, covering eight million patients under NHS contract.
Livi’s mission is to build better, more accessible healthcare for everyone. Its service is used by more than 4,500 GP practices in the UK. Through partnerships with the NHS, it enables more than eight million patients to see GPs and other health professionals by video consultation, free at the point of use, on their smartphone, tablet or computer.
GMC-registered Livi GPs can provide medical advice, prescriptions, fit notes and referrals to further NHS services. In areas without an NHS partnership, patients can access Livi’s GPs on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Livi is rated Outstanding by the Care Quality Commission. Find out more here.