Building bridges not walls...Have you ever had that moment where someone says something, or you experience something and it’s so revealing that it has the power to change what you think about an issue? Well that happened to me this week. I have the privilege of being able to help and support a wide range of people, from diplomats, to business people, to home makers right through to young kids experiencing a difficult time. That work often leads to me uncovering anxieties and issues that perhaps were hidden from view, because to get through life and hold it together, we often project a particular image of ourselves to others.
This week I had the pleasure of meeting someone who actually does that for a living. She’s an actress and she’s just beginning to make a name for herself and she actually came to see me about phobia of spiders or arachnophobia. A pretty common phobia, but quite debilitating for the sufferer especially when that person is about to commence shooting a film in the outback of Australia! She’d landed the role and was really chuffed about it, but of course when the initial excitement had worn off, thoughts funnel-webs and bird-eaters creeping into her sleeping bag at night was causing her to have panic attacks. She’d come to see me to see if I could help her and I reassured her that I could. But it was something else that came up, in the course of our conversation that really made me think and I asked if she mind whether I mentioned it in my blog as I was so struck by what she’d said. She was happy for me to do so, so here goes…
This vibrant young woman, surrounded by people, starting to become successful and having what promises to be a great future ahead of her, confided she was lonely. Now, I know loneliness is a real problem for many people, but she was the last person I ever expected to be feeling it. When I asked her why she thought she felt like that, she answered that she was away for long periods of time from her family and even though she had met plenty of kind and interesting people, she felt she hadn’t got anyone she felt a deep connection with and that made her feel isolated. “No-one can tell,” she said with a wistful smile, “…it must be because I’m such a good actress!”
That short conversation really made me think. Here we all are in this bustling city, one of so many bustling cities around the world, seemingly more connected through technology, so why do one in five of us feel loneliness? I don’t think any one person has the answer, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about this week and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Firstly, I think that while social media and technology has given us so many new ways to communicate, it’s eroded perhaps the most important one – speaking to and interacting with real human beings! It’s easy to think that texting and posting mean we are involved in that interaction, and sure they can be a great way to stay connected, but they’re a poor substitute for spending time with people who make us happy.
And the key word there is time. It takes time and that’s also something that has been eroded. Our busy lives, longer working hours, jobs that take us away from our families and communities, which gives us far less time to spend forming and developing strong relationships with people we feel we have something in common with. People that we feel comfortable enough with to show who we really are.
That lack of attachment to others, that lack of companionship that so many people across the globe increasingly seem to be feeling also has a huge impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. I believe that loneliness is an issue that we need to take as seriously as the obesity crisis or smoking, because it can be as damaging to our health. Research has shown that real social networks as opposed to virtual ones can help us overcome illness, combat cognitive decline and even help us stave off disease.
Just like hunger is the body’s way of telling us we need to eat, so loneliness is the body’s way of telling us we need more social contact. I realise that is easy to say and harder to make happen, but I think we all have to start somewhere. I think recognising how you’re feeling is a big part of that and also accepting that it’s ok if you feel sad about this, because there are other people out there feeling exactly the same. Be as compassionate with yourself about the feeling as you would if someone told you they were lonely. And then, start small, but start nonetheless, to make changes. Reach out and fight the urge to further isolate yourself, no matter how small the steps are at first, it is imperative you break down those barriers that are making you feel disconnected. It might mean you need to take risks and open yourself up to others, join in with things you wouldn’t ordinarily do, talk about yourself rather than listening to how other people feel or even ask for help. Do that, be brave and one thing I’m absolutely certain about is that things will start to improve.