You are not alone: a self-help guide to loneliness as a student
Ella Feeley talks us through some of her top tips and tricks for managing overwhelming bouts of loneliness as a university student:
Artwork by Innes Clark (IG: @Innesclarkillo).
It is something we have all experienced. We can feel it in the isolation of our own spaces, or surrounded by our closest friends. Loneliness is a universal emotion that crawls under our skin and clings to us wherever we go. With a smile on our faces and a laugh in our mouths, we can simultaneously feel so isolated from others that our mind starts to convince us that we won’t ever feel otherwise. This does not mean all is lost, though, as there are things you can do to make yourself feel better.
Although it can be a very sociable experience, being at university is no exception to feeling lonely. Meeting so many new people can be very daunting, and while for some it can go smoothly, for others it is their most difficult challenge yet. Loneliness at university can manifest in multiple different ways, from experiencing isolation due to difficulty making friends, to feeling lonely despite having met many new friends. The bottom line is: human beings need to connect with people, not just on a surface level, but we need to feel heard, seen and appreciated. Loneliness is simply the brain's way of pushing us to seek those connections we desire.
So what actually is loneliness? Loneliness can be many, many things, but is often defined as a feeling or state of mind where one is sad because they lack friends or general company. This can be brought on by many things, for example: bad mental health (anxiety, depression), being surrounded by the wrong people, or if there are differences that make it hard for you to connect with others. Loneliness can also be a physical isolation, as when we feel disconnected and misunderstood by others, we often retreat into our own spaces for comfort. This can generally have the opposite effect and make us feel much worse. At the same time, you do not have to be physically isolated to feel lonely. You can feel unappreciated, detached or misunderstood by those close to you. Sitting in a room full of friends and feeling like you can never truly be yourself around them, or having something weighing on your mind that you cannot share even with the closest of friends, for example, can be extremely isolating.
So how exactly can we identify if we are feeling lonely? There are questions we can ask ourselves to better understand if and why this may be the case:
Do I have someone I feel close to and can be myself around?
Are there people around me that I can spend time with and do I have things in common with them?
Is there someone in my life who asks me how I am feeling and how my day has been?
Do I feel different from others (for example, due to age, disability, ethnicity, money, political views etc)? Does this hinder my ability to join in?
Is there an issue that I am struggling with but I can’t talk about?
Once we identify why we might feel lonely, it can make it much easier to help ourselves feel better. While it is impossible to just switch loneliness off permanently (it is a normal part of being human!), it is important to remember that you are capable of making it better. Reaching out to people we feel we have things in common with is one of the best ways to combat loneliness. Even saying hello to that person that you might usually overlook can be hugely beneficial and could open up the opportunity for a conversation.
While your mind may believe that you are alone, so many around you are feeling the same way, even if you can’t see it. Just as you don’t advertise your loneliness, neither do those around you. It is an inherent flaw in human beings to feel completely isolated in our own experiences, when in reality many of us are feeling the same way. In fact, loneliness is a lot more common at university than you think. With COVID-19 forcing many of us to isolate at different times in the last two and a half years, it has only amplified these feelings. The Student Academic Experience Survey of this year revealed that 23% of students experienced loneliness ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’ in the last year. That is almost 1 in every 4 students. Another 36% felt lonely ‘at least once a week’. While these findings are not surprising, it is still shocking to see them laid out for us in plain writing.
For returning students who have experienced their first years of university through a screen, these findings ring particularly true. COVID-19 has been the source of a lot of loneliness, causing many to have great difficulty connecting with the people around them. Now with classes becoming in-person again it’s not just new students that will find this semester daunting. Walking into a room with people you’ve shared online classes with for a year or more and yet not knowing their names or faces is like being thrown in at the deep end before you’ve been taught how to swim. The work is familiar but the people are not. The time for “getting to know” classmates feels long past and there is already an initial isolation that is established. Doing your best to push past nerves is incredibly important in this instance so you can finally get to know the people around you on a more personal level.
What then can you do to combat loneliness? And how should you go about improving your mindset moving into this academic year? The NHS has some really helpful advice available on how you can do this:
Try talking about your feelings to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor. You could also contact Samaritans, call: 116 123 or email email@example.com if you need someone to talk to;
Consider joining a group or class that focuses on something you enjoy; you could ask to go along and just watch at first if you’re feeling nervous;
Consider visiting places where you can just be around other people - for example, a park, the cinema or a cafe;
Consider peer support, where people use their experiences to help each other. Find out more about peer support from Mind;
Get advice and practical tips on looking after your mental health from Every Mind Matters;
Try the 6 ways to feel happier, which are simple lifestyle changes to help you feel more in control and able to cope;
Find out how to raise your self-esteem;
Listen to free mental wellbeing audio guides.
The NHS also recommends not trying to do everything at once and setting small goals for yourself, not focusing on things that cannot be changed, not comparing yourself to others (especially on social media), and not using vices to feel better such as alcohol, cigarettes, gambling or drugs (these have the opposite effect). Easier said than done sometimes, right? These are incredibly important to avoid though, as they can make things much worse.
Some other helpful sources to check out are Headspace, which discusses in depth the feeling of loneliness and provides a short meditative exercise, and Mind, which discusses thoroughly how you can connect with other students at university.
The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. All around you people are experiencing loneliness and so it is vital that you don’t allow your mind to convince yourself that you are alone (this often ends in further isolation and thus you enter a vicious cycle). Your mind is a powerful tool but does not always have your best interests at heart, so doing what you can to help yourself feel better is incredibly important. As cliché as it sounds, you really are never alone and only you can make the changes that you want to see in yourself.