Anxiety is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. For social anxiety in particular, there is a two-way relationship with loneliness: when we are socially anxious we are more likely to become lonely. When we are lonely, we are more likely to become social anxious.
Given the week, it was fitting to spend the day running a workshop on the psychology of loneliness with people working to tackle loneliness and improve wellbeing in Kent. The group were a mix of volunteers and frontline workers involved in programmes for older people, veterans and young people. Many were using the arts as the basis of their services.
Loneliness in context
Any conversation about loneliness needs to include the psychology of loneliness. How loneliness affects the way we understand our social relationships and interactions much more negatively. It can cause us to withdraw and get really stuck in our isolation. We used the example of the lunch we had just had at the workshop – when we’re not lonely people going to get a drink or to start chatting to another member of the group is normal. When we are lonely the same situation can feel fraught with worries about whether someone has gone to get a sandwich to get away from us or because we had something wrong. Afterwards we can dwell on these small moments in a way that can feel overwhelming.
Different ways of understanding the reasons for our loneliness also make a difference – believing loneliness is just what we are like can make it harder to move on from loneliness. If we see our loneliness as caused by an external reason it is more likely we will become less lonely. Similarly, managing our loneliness in a more practical way can be more effective than just by trying to manage the emotions of loneliness.
The nuances of loneliness
The group found that this was very much their experience of working on loneliness. Through conversations and reflecting on their practice, people said that it brought to the surface knowledge and understanding they did not quite know they had.
We also considered what we could learn from the psychological approaches with the clearest evidence for helping loneliness: cognitive behavioural therapy, positive psychology and mindfulness. This is not about trying to make people practitioners in these approaches but using them for inspiration.
People at the workshop said the day had helped them to more clearly explain their work to funders, make sure that people joining a new group were receiving a ‘warm welcome’, and to explain to the people they supported the value of their creativity.
It was the first time we have run such an in-depth look at the psychology of loneliness in our learning programme and before the workshop I could certainly relate to the anxiety theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. However, it was great to be able to see a group of committed people really using it to help fewer people be lonely in future.