How to fight loneliness and win.

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Thanks to the development of new technologies the world is continually getting smaller.  Travel and communications have become easier, faster, and cheaper than ever before. Social media allows us to keep in touch with people that in days gone by would have had nothing more than a bit part in our lives, and offers the opportunity to get to know people we’ve never actually met.

So why do we still see so many articles about the “loneliness epidemic”? Maybe society is forgetting how to really connect, and the importance of genuine human contact? Or maybe it’s because people only show their best on social media, and we’re forgetting the uniting (and healing) power of sharing our insecurities, pains, and secrets in private with another person? Maybe it’s because we are more aware than ever of what we weren’t invited to or included in by our “friends”, or because we can see that person our crush (or ex, etc.) is spending a lot of time with, at the click of a button…

The truth is the reasons why don’t really matter. What really matters is what you do about it: loneliness may seem utterly debilitating, but it can also be defeated. It may affect people differently – from mild to devastating, short lived to seemingly endless – but it will affect everyone and anyone indiscriminately, if it is given the chance. In fact, everyone I have ever spoken to about it has felt the same at one time or another.

Here are the five things that I have found to be most powerful against loneliness, and help to keep it at bay when it comes for me:

1) Exercise. The endorphins will make you feel better, as will the satisfaction of swimming a length that little bit faster, or lifting that little bit more, or even being a little less out of breath when you walk up the stairs. You’ll also start to look better too, which will only help your confidence grow and make you feel happier in your own skin. It’s also hard to find time to feel lonely when you’re trying not to notice that your lungs are burning and your muscles aching. Outdoor exercise can get you out of the confines of your lonely room, and simple things like an amicable nod from a passing stranger may have a subconscious effect on how you feel for the rest of the day. Joining a club, participating in team exercises, or even simply working out at the gym can also lead to new friendships!

2) Set goals and document it. What the goal is really doesn’t matter, whether it be getting a new job, passing an upcoming exam, eating a cleaner diet, or even just sleeping more (which is also proven to help boost one’s mood, and will help get you through the next day’s exercise!), set some goals and fill your free time working towards them. Not only does filling empty time reduce how much time you have to wallow in your loneliness, but by documenting your progress you can look back and see the progress you have made, which will not only give you the satisfaction of having improved yourself but can help keep you motivated until you have completed your goal. And once you have, give yourself a pat on the back and get busy setting yourself some more!

3) Find a creative outlet. Loneliness is a powerful emotion, and one best not left to build up inside you. Creativity is a wonderfully powerful emotional outlet, and a great way to express yourself, work through problems in your head, or to simply let off some steam without needing to rely on anyone else. Paint, sing, sculpt, make, design, write, dance… Whatever works for you.

4) Find people like you. Loneliness is not the same as being alone. If you feel like you don’t belong, find where you do. Go to see bands you like in concert, or to watch your favourite sports team. Find your niche – be it a religious centre or a car meet. Don’t be afraid to do things alone, and go with an open mind. I have been to Reading Festival twice, once in a group, and once alone, and genuinely had as much, if not more, fun on the latter occasion – meeting new people and doing my own thing!

5) Disconnect. Get off social media! And if not completely (it is a phenomenal resource for keeping in touch with people after all), why not try to limit the time you spend using it? Social media feeds typically show a mixture of posts from all your contacts, so it can be easy to compare yourself with everyone else collectively rather than as individuals, compounding feelings of isolation and exclusion. What’s more, it can be hard enough to live your own life, without simultaneously trying to keep up with everyone else’s.

X.

What I learnt at university (other than my course material).

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Today I received the grade I will be graduating my MSc with: 76%. To someone accustomed to the American, Australian, or other such grading systems this may seem fairly unimpressive, but here in the UK, where 70% is the minimum requirement for first class honours (undergraduate) and distinction (master’s) – the highest awards available at their respective levels – and where course averages over 80% are almost unheard of, it is an achievement I feel very proud of. However, final result aside, I have taken a lot more from my university experiences than just the course contents and a fancy piece of paper.

Even studying biological sciences, with its countless hours spent in laboratories in addition to lectures and tutorials, I found life as an undergraduate highly liberating. I found I had sufficient time to regularly practice with two bands, go skateboarding, go to the gym, go out with friends, and do other stereotypical undergrad things like binge-watch TV shows. Admittedly I have always been an efficient worker, but I soon discovered that getting things done became easier the more organised I was, and without which adjustment it would have been impossible to maintain this lifestyle throughout the entire program of study whilst keeping on top of my academic commitments. Sure, I definitely didn’t sleep as much as I maybe should have, and I am sure many would argue my decision to not drink any alcohol, which undoubtedly saved me many hours of hangover recovery (and a lot of money into the bargain), is not in the spirit of the British university experience, but managing to pursue and develop my non-academic interests as I did, meet so many great new friends, and succeed academically more than makes up for it; I had the time of my life (so far anyway).

My Master’s degree, which I undertook at a different university, was a very different, but equally rewarding experience. This course followed a modular structure, with courses running intensively over a week each, with seven hours of lectures and/or practical work each day, the weeks in between modules filled with additional private study and assessments. Due to the nature of the course structure, I opted to commute to the site – a military facility 65 miles away – whilst returning to live in my family home (having spent my undergraduate years in private accommodation and halls). This might have been an isolated setting for the year, had the intensity of my studies not been so great and the course numbers so small; nights out with coursemates were few in number – mostly to celebrate birthdays or other special occasions – with socialising instead predominately occurring at meal and break times (generally spent at the Officer’s Mess), whilst working on group projects, or at the end of the day when many of us would wait for the rush hour traffic to ease before hitting the roads.

This time, the experience gave me an insight into the working world: long, full days, a lengthy commute, much less free time to devote to one’s other interests. I soon realised that an audiobook or music was all it took to turn my drives into a period of respite at the end of a long day, and that by working on any assessments I had pending whilst waiting for the traffic to subside I would have more time for playing guitar and piano or working out once I got home. I actually found that this time constraint resulted in me naturally shedding lazy habits (such as watching TV) in favour of doing the things I really wanted to do, hardly downsizing the time I invested in my non-academic passions relative to my time as an undergraduate. Initially, the step from undergraduate to postgraduate study had seemed massive – almost too great to handle – but I ultimately showed myself how much pressure I can not only handle but succeed under.

To anyone approaching a big decision in life, or about to undertake something that seems intimidating in proportion, you must first be absolutely sure it is what you want to do, or will help you get to where you want to be. I realise that had I not found my courses fulfilling the experience may have crushed my spirits and sapped my energy, which would have resulted in repercussions for every aspect of my life. The early starts would have been unbearable, and the workload oppressive. Always follow your heart; no matter how well intentioned other people’s advice may be, only you can know which path is right for you. Once you are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to pursue your goals – be it a job, a course of study, or any other challenge for that matter – do it, because regardless of the outcome, you may be amazed by what you learn about who you are and what you are capable of.

X.