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Have you heard that loneliness is now considered a major public health risk? Health journalist Carole Beck finds out how we can combat loneliness and how we can re-connect.

Around 9 million people in the UK say they often feel lonely, but loneliness isn’t just about our emotional health. It’s now considered a public health risk; as damaging to our health as smoking and obesity. It can even increase your risk of dying early by 26%, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness. A recent study by the University of Stirling in Scotland found that loneliness is also linked to health conditions such as depression, dementia, heart disease and cancer.

But there are some simple things we can all do to alleviate feelings of isolation and combat loneliness in the community at the same time. Carole Beck investigates.

1. Ask why you’re feeling lonely

Yes, there’s a link between loneliness and old age, but feeling lonely can happen at any time of life – whether it’s facing empty nest syndrome when the kids move away, immobility, poor health or a relationship breakdown. It may simply be a lack of sense of belonging, whether in your neighbourhood or circle of friends.

“Understanding your personal situation is key as you can then take steps to fix it,” says Dr Roderick Ørner, clinical psychologist and professor in primary and pre-hospital care at the University of Lincoln. So, check in with yourself to identify the main causes of your loneliness.

2. Start with online help

“Social forums are a great way to connect with like-minded people online to prevent feelings of isolation,” says Dr Pauline Rennie-Peyton, psychologist specialising in relationships. While, online counselling is an easy way to seek help from the comfort of home and there already services helping hundreds of thousands of people. One main benefit of online therapy is the disinhibition effect, according to Terry Hanley, researcher in counselling psychology at Manchester University. “This is where people feel more comfortable opening up and discussing problems when they are online.”

As a Vitality member you could gain access to guided online therapy as well as face-to-face cognitive behavioural therapy.

3. Make sure you meet people

“Treat social media and email as tools to help you connect,” says Ørner. “However, to deepen relationships and avoid loneliness, it’s human nature to need face-to-face contact.”

Start by greeting your neighbours to build a sense of belonging. You might want to sign up to an evening class or workshop that interests you – Meetup is a great platform for finding local community events, from board game evenings to open mic nights. “The first step is often the hardest – but remember that everyone who turns up is in the same boat,” says GP Dr Rob Hicks.

4. Join a community project you believe in

“Having a shared purpose is one of the most powerful instruments to overcome loneliness,” says Ørner. “Coming together with other people who are striving for the same end goal extends your social network, while giving you a mental boost of pride and satisfaction. Plus, it generates an important resource for your local area.”

Check out your local council or neighbourhood group website for ideas. For example, initiatives such as Near Neighbours (which helps communities develop positive relationships) or Eden Project (the initiative behind community events such as The Big Lunch) offer everyone the chance to get involved with local feel-good projects across the UK. You could also try volunteering at your local parkrun.

5. Try group exercise

Exercise makes us feel good and is therefore a great way to combat feelings of loneliness. Better still, there are lots of ways you can combine getting fit with meeting people, such as joining a running, walking or local sports club. If gardening is your thing, search for a local allotment to join or sign up to Green Gym to make friends while gardening.

“Being fit is also very empowering,” says Ørner. “It gives you resolve and resilience to help overcome loneliness.”

6. Get a dog (or borrow one)

A dog gives you a free pass to a whole new social group of like-minded people. “Owning a dog lifts people out of a loneliness rut better than anything else I’ve come across,” says Rennie-Peyton. “Walking the dog at the same time every day means you’re likely to meet the same dog-owners, and get to know them through their dogs.”

Like dogs but not ready for your own? Walk a friend’s dog or sign up to BorrowMyDoggy.

7. Book in date nights if you have a partner

You don’t have to live alone to feel lonely. For some people, loneliness when married or with a partner is a problem too. There are several reasons that distance can build between a couple – giving you that feeling of loneliness when not alone – and it’s important to understand why.

“You could have withdrawn from each other because of a relationship problem or health concern, like erectile dysfunction, an underactive thyroid or depression,” says Hicks. “Look at what the underlying problem could be, and spend time together, just the two of you. Relationship counselling may help to combat loneliness or other issues, but see your GP if you suspect a health problem.”

Struggling with feelings of loneliness or isolation? Our Core Cover includes up to eight sessions of out-patient cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling per plan year. We also offer our members access to a range of clinically effective treatments including self-help and guided online therapy.

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