It’s not just elderly people who can feel lonely or isolated. I’m 26 and sometimes I feel so empty and alone I can hardly bear to inhabit my own skin. My diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) definitely affects my ability to maintain stable relationships, and having generalised anxiety means that I can panic in new situations or in social contexts with people I don’t know. I’ve also got a history of abuse and trauma, and this makes it difficult for me to ‘read’ other people and correctly interpret gestures, body language, facial expressions and speech. I’m trapped in a vicious cycle of being lonely partly because I have mental health problems, and loneliness making my mental health problems more pronounced. The worst thing about loneliness is that it’s so hard to tell other people that you’re struggling. Loneliness carries its own social stigma, which means that people are more likely to keep their feelings hidden than share them with others. I worry that people will see it as a symptom of me having an unpleasant personality or not being a nice person to spend time with, and then I worry that those things are true. Feeling unpopular, unwanted, ashamed and alone all combines to make a poisonous soup of mental distress. Loneliness also taps into a wider sense of inadequacy around what I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing in this period of my life. I always imagined my 20s to be fun. I thought I’d have all the independence of adulthood without being particularly weighed down by the accompanying responsibilities I might have to put up with in my 30s and beyond.
My 20s would be about holidays, barbecues, doing the pub quiz with a big group of friends, weddings, having annual meet-ups with school and university pals, and keeping up with ever-buzzing WhatsApp groups for the sharing of gossip and inconsequential daily trivia. It’s really not like this at all. In Britain, 18-34 year olds are more likely to often feel lonely or depressed than people over the age of 55. According to an ONS report, the UK is now the loneliest country in Europe. Theresa May has appointed a new ‘minister for loneliness’ to honour the legacy of murdered MP Jo Cox and to tackle an issue that’s believed to affect around 9 million people in the UK. We hear a great deal about loneliness in older people living alone, but away from group chats and Instagram stories, millennials are lonely too. And loneliness affects everything.
A study from Kings College London this year shows that lonely millennials are more likely to have mental health problems, be unemployed and feel negatively about their ability to succeed in comparison to their peers who don’t feel lonely. This was found to be true regardless of gender or wealth. Meaningful connections with others are a huge factor in whether or not someone is happy. Humans are social creatures and we require reassurance, stimulation, validation and comfort from others. Loneliness can be corrosive, leading to bitterness, self-doubt and an increased fear of ‘putting yourself out there’ in social situations. Some people take great comfort from the avenues for connection available online, but social media makes me feel much lonelier.
It’s like constantly being reminded that a huge party is happening elsewhere that I’m not invited to. I seem to spend a great deal of time scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook feeds, seeing people I know spending their weekends with huge groups of friends. It makes me feel like there’s something really wrong with me because I don’t have that. Logically I know that these people usually still live in the same area as their school or university friends, or they simply have the kind of easygoing, amenable personality that lets them slot easily into a group of new friends like a round peg into a round hole. I feel more like the square peg/round hole kind of person. It must feel like having a soft, cosy blanket wrapped around you to know that there’s a group of people who regularly want to spend time with you. I’m paralysed by a fear of rejection from people I do know, and I freeze when confronted with people I don’t know at all at networking events or things that people have invited me along to. I’m suspicious that these invitations come from a place of pity. My firm belief is that once people get to know me, they won’t like me at all. I’ve moved from my hometown to five different cities during my adult life due to study and work, and this sense of transience and rootlessness might be a contributing factor for why I feel lonely. It’s easier at school or university, when you have a ready-made group of people in the same area who are living vaguely similar lives. The workplace is a different setting altogether. If by some stroke of luck you do actually want to be friends with your co-workers, they might want to leave everything work-related at the door each day. The graduate job market and concentration of creative roles in certain areas of the country could also have a role to play here. I took the first graduate job that was offered to me after my Masters because I was convinced I wouldn’t be offered anything better, and I moved to a town where I knew absolutely no one. The job was a bad fit with a punishing commute that made my weight drop dangerously. I ended up working from home but I was forced to stay in the same town because I was locked into a tenancy agreement, completely isolated and severely depressed. Lucy* has had similar experiences of moving for work and finding it a lonely business. She tells Metro.co.uk ‘I moved for a dream job in fashion and although I loved my work, I was so lonely. ‘I was living in a house share with people who were fine, but not my friends. I didn’t really make friends at work either. Everyone had already formed their own bonds and groups and I felt like there wasn’t any room for me. ‘Among people I knew from uni, it was actually pretty common for people to move to completely new places for a job. I think everyone worried that if you didn’t take what you were offered, you wouldn’t get anything else. ‘I got so depressed because I was lonely that I fell back into a really toxic long-distance relationship with a guy who I knew was basically abusive, and I started binge eating. ‘I ended up moving back to where my family is from and getting a job there.’ There are lots of reasons that people in their 20s feel lonely. We’re often told that it’s the elderly who are the lonely ones, but youth is no guarantee of happiness, fulfilment or the ability to maintain friendships. Austin told Metro.co.uk that he became isolated due to a relationship. ‘Over the course of a relationship, I sacrificed my happiness for another person,’ he explains. ‘Now I’m left pretty estranged from my old friends and struggling to make new ones my age. ‘The sting comes from wanting those connections, having it hang there sent or seeing the dreaded “read/seen”. Being lonely, in my opinion, is more about that sting than actually being alone.’ You can be lonely even if you don’t live alone.
You don’t have to be totally alone to feel lonely. I live with my fiancé, I work in an office with other people, and I do have some friends, but I still feel incredibly lonely. Sometimes I ring a mental health helpline if my anxiety and loneliness get too hard to handle. Other times, I just crawl under the duvet and imagine having a group of friends to spend Friday night with. After uprooting my life yet again and moving to a new city, I regularly hide in bed after work, too nervous to ask anyone I know in this busy, strange metropolis if they want to go for a drink because they might say no. The fear of pain or rejection stops me from reaching out. Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at the mental health charity Mind, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Feeling isolated from others or the world around you can have a significant impact on how you’re feeling. Having a mental health problem increases your chance of feeling lonely, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health. ‘No matter what age you are, people are naturally social creatures and most of us feel the need for social contact and relationships in one form or another. ‘Being sociable and connecting with other people is rewarding in its own right and can help significantly improve your mental wellbeing. But if you’re feeling low or anxious, reaching out to others can be hard and many people isolate themselves from friends and family. ‘Life can be challenging at times and when you’re living with a mental health problem the ups and downs of day-to-day life can be that much harder to manage. ‘In your 20s, you may be facing lots of stressful issues around finances, employment, housing and relationships that can affect your mental health. ‘You may find that friendships change as people’s life circumstances do, or that moving away from home or staying at home while others move away make you feel isolated. Many people find volunteering, starting a hobby or exercising can help manage feelings of loneliness.’ I know I need to take steps to stop these feelings of loneliness eating me alive. The first one was writing this article. If you are concerned that feelings of loneliness are having a negative impact on your mental health, try an online community like Mind’s Elefriends or visit Mind’s info pages on loneliness.
Names Have Been Changed To Protect The Individual.
Huge Thanks to MetroUk for the Blog.
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