THE subject of loneliness is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. During the pandemic we have been told to not stand any closer than two metres apart and social isolation has become the norm.

For those vulnerable individuals, be that through frailty or by virtue of having a chronic disease, a period of shielding for 12 weeks must seem like an eternity.

For some, loneliness is a temporary state, for example at the break up of a relationship, or relocating to a new area, before they find their feet and develop a social network.

Yet for others, usually the elderly, loneliness is a condition they have lived with long before coronavirus became embedded in the public conscience. As a GP, I have been to house calls where the patient will express, often tearfully, that I may be the only face they’ll see all week, now that their children have their own families and are no longer in the same town or region.

Experts define loneliness as “a universal human emotion, which is both complex and unique to the individual”. Because the causes of loneliness are multiple, unfortunately there often isn’t a simple solution.

Breaking away from the idea of an elderly person alone in their house, it may surprise some to learn that children can feel loneliness, even in a family unit, if they aren’t given the appropriate level of affection and attention. Indeed, loneliness is different from being alone.

Many are very content in their own company; some often prefer it to that of others. It is when being alone is either frightening or you feel that you can’t change it, that the term loneliness is applied.

There is good evidence that having company is beneficial to your physical and mental health. The oft quoted studies are those showing that married men have lower blood pressure, are at reduced risk of heart attack, are more likely to attend for routine health checks, and that their outlook on life is better than their single counterparts.

But you don’t have to be married. The same observations have been noticed in men and women who have a pet with whom they interact happily.

This doesn’t mean you have to hook up with someone, or get a dog or cat. Developing a good set of friends, with the emphasis being on quality rather than quantity, goes a long way to reducing the burden of loneliness.

While at the present we can’t do many of the activities we used to, through electronic communication, it is still possible to keep in touch with a group. I am reminded of an elderly lady whose husband died after a long illness. Her outlet was thrice weekly bridge sessions. With the pandemic, the group quickly switched to meeting online, sharing a chat and laughter along the way.

Though it is difficult to break out of the cycle of loneliness, and for some it may seem an impossibility, taking steps to embrace the world around you may have surprisingly positive results. Sometimes just a regular morning walk and saying hello to someone who acknowledges your presence can boost your mood for the whole day.

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