How do you start to reach out to others, even when you feel afraid?

The Campaign to End Loneliness estimates that 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty million people - and loneliness affects people of all ages.

Although it’s not a mental health issue, loneliness is not good for us, or our physical or mental health.

  • Loneliness and social isolation are associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure
  • Loneliness is a risk factor for depression in later life
  • Loneliness and social isolation put individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia

If you have a mental health issue, or you’re shy, or find it hard to trust because you’ve been let down in the past, it can be really hard to even contemplate making connections with other people. Yet when we do spend time with others, we often feel better for it.

Here are a few suggestions for dipping your toe in the water:

Call or text a friend or relative.

You may feel that the people you know are all busy and won’t have time for you, but you may be pleasantly surprised, if you make an effort to connect. Reach out to your friends, by picking up the phone, sending a text or contacting them through social media. Rather than expecting a particular response from your action, just do it as a nice gesture. 

Join a group.

Think about activities and hobbies you enjoy, or perhaps something you’d like to learn, and see if there are any groups or classes in your area that cater to that interest. There are many groups online now, so it’s easier to just turn up and give it a go!

 Look into volunteering.

Don’t tell yourself you need special skills – we all have something to give back. You’ll meet new people and you’ll feel great about helping others. Have a look at the Sheffield Volunteer Centre list of vacancies on their website - you'll be amazed at the variety of opportunities on offer. 

Little things make a difference.

Make this your mantra.

Yes, it’s great to have strong friendships but brief exchanges with others can also have an impact on how you feel about yourself.  Say hello to a neighbour, the shop keeper or the person at the bus stop. Having good relations with those near you will make you feel more receptive to others - and hopefully give you more confidence to develop more, meaningful relationships.

Set yourself a little challenge, of starting up a conversation with someone you meet when you’re out-and-about. Here are a few starter tips:

There are some old classics - the weather, the traffic or the buses.

What about a compliment – what a nice bag, or shoes.

You can ask for help –  at the bus stop: what time is the next bus? To a neighbour – has the post man been yet?

Spend time outdoors

Going outside regularly, be it in your garden, or a walk to the park, library, or a browse in some charity shops, is a great way to feel better and feel part of the outside world. You’ll see people when you’re out-and-about and by enjoying the natural world and your local environment, you’ll feel more connected to your neighbourhood.

Plan an enjoyable activity into your week

Take time to plan ahead and include a pastime that makes you feel good. This can include doing something creative, going outside and walking, reading, gardening, or listening to music. When you fully engage yourself in something you love, it serves as a healthy distraction, offering hours of quality time where you can focus your mind on the positive. Having a hobby, or engaging in a regular pastime, is also a great conversation starter - if you feel passionate about something, telling others about it will makes you come across as interesting and vibrant.

Connect online

Technology is a great way to both stay in touch with friends and make new friends. There are many ways to keep in touch using technology: email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, messenger - and more. It just takes a minute to reach out using these methods and it can be a great way of feeling connected to others.  If you’re not confident about using online technology, why not find out if there are any courses offered in your local library or community centre, to help improve your skills in this area. For instance, many local Age UK branches offer ‘silver surfer’ classes. These classes will also tell you what you need to do to stay safe online.

Don’t keep it to yourself – and look for help if you need it

It’s tempting to think that loneliness is something you should keep to yourself, but opening up about how you feel might really help, as you may find that other people have had similar experiences. Talking to someone about your feelings of loneliness and learning positive coping techniques can be a helpful way to deal with the negative emotions associated with loneliness. Talk to your GP about accessing talking therapies.

Find out what support is available locally

Some people may benefit from a more formal social arrangement such as befriending, where you're matched with a befriender who can either contact you via phone or in person. This can be a good option if you find leaving your home difficult.  Community Connectors, Social Prescribers and Navigators can help you find local services, groups and activities that suit you. This may help you with your loneliness and improve your health and wellbeing more broadly. You can talk to your GP about how to access these services and the Befriending Network has a directory of services in the UK.