At this time of the year, many of us will be making plans for visiting friends and family, or perhaps preparing to have guests over during the festive season. It’s traditionally a time for parties, celebrations and generally being sociable. However, for some people this can be a more problematic time of year.
This may be because the festive season can heighten feelings of loneliness in isolated people who do not have a large social support network. Conversely, spending extra time at home with family or at events and social engagements can leave some people craving some time and space for themselves to unwind and recharge their batteries.
Furthermore, people who deliberately choose to be alone over Christmas can be made to feel guilty or even ashamed, as society can still attach a stigma to being single. They may feel under pressure to accept invitations that they don’t really want to, or feel unnecessarily self-conscious about activities such as dining out or going to the cinema alone.
All this highlights the key difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone is simply the physical state of not being with other people, whereas being lonely is a psychological state of feeling isolated or disconnected from others. It is possible to feel lonely even when you are with someone else if the quality of your connections are poor.
There are several scientific studies that have linked loneliness with worse mental health, and an increased risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke in older age. However, this research focused on groups of people who tended to be isolated by other circumstances that could contribute to poor health, such as low income, disability, and bereavement.
The Times reports that a new study by researchers at the University of Reading looks at the other side of the coin. They studied people who voluntarily chose to spend time alone, and concluded that solitude can boost our mental health and wellbeing.
The researchers asked a group of 178 adults aged 35 or older to keep a daily journal of how much time they spent with others and how much time they spent alone. The participants were also asked to record their daily levels of stress, isolation, autonomy and life satisfaction. The results of this study are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
When the results were analysed, the researchers found that: “Spending more hours alone was linked with … feelings of reduced stress, suggesting solitude’s calming effects. A day with more time in solitude also related to feeling [greater] freedom to choose and be oneself.”
Although on the other hand the participants reported greater feelings of loneliness and stress on the days when they spent most time alone, this was largely the result of enforced solitude rather than a deliberate choice to be alone.
Professor Netta Weinstein, from the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and the lead author of the study, said: “The enforced lockdowns of the pandemic highlighted many of the long-lasting impacts that can occur when we are starved of interaction with other people. Yet this study highlights some of the benefits that solitude can bring.”
She added: “Time alone can leave us feeling less stress and free to be ourselves. This study highlights that spending time alone can be a healthy, positive choice, and that there is no universal level of socialisation or solitude to aim for.”
“With thoughtful use, solitude may promote wellness, but forced isolation can risk loneliness and dissatisfaction. Choosing solitude and using it intentionally for its benefits may be key … amid the demands of modern life.”
The amount of time we need alone may depend on our individual characters, as it is well known that introverts need time alone to recharge their energy, whereas more extroverted people thrive from being around others. However, even extroverts can benefit from some solitude to help them feel grounded.
For many people, the answer lies in the quality of their social connections, rather than the volume or frequency of social interactions. Carving out time to spend doing something that we really enjoy, or be with those we really care about can help us to strike a balance between positive and fulfilling social connections and feelings of loneliness or isolation.
When you do feel the emptiness and sadness of being alone, acknowledge the way you are feeling without judgement and treat yourself with compassion. This can help you to keep caring for yourself and to ease any fears or negative feelings you may have.
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