Niamh Delmar is a Counselling Psychologist and Mental Health Freelance writer. Here, she shares her advice for coping with isolation and loneliness.

Loneliness is a subjective state experienced when an individual feels a lack of social connections. Social loneliness is having a lack of social networks and emotional loneliness is the absence of attachments. It is not necessarily linked to living alone or being elderly. It is not about the amount of connections, but the quality.

Without meaningful connections, a person is at risk. Millions more people found themselves chronically lonely during lockdowns. People who were lonely became lonelier, and, for others, social isolation led to loneliness. This type of distress is also on the rise for adolescents and young adults as they experienced isolation from schools, Universities and peers.

Social media is not conducive to forming meaningful friendships. Increased exposure has been liked to higher levels of loneliness. Research from the Central Statistics Office found that the number of people who felt lonely doubled between April and November 2020. One in four aged between 18 and 34 years of age reported feeling lonely. Mothers with babies, marginalised groups and immigrants are also at risk.

According to the Lancet Medical Journal, periods of isolation has long term effects, with psychiatric symptoms lasting up to three years later. Not only the pandemic itself, but prolonged separation from others has contributed to anxiety, depression and post- traumatic stress. A study by UCLA Professor of Medicine Dr. Steve Cole found that feeling connected to others strengthened immunity, which is significant in these COVID times.

Health messaging for decades has encouraged people to reach out, talk and connect. We have been informed of the significance of having support networks. In recent times, for societal health and safety, we have been bombarded with messages to socially distance, limit interactions, stick to our bubbles, stay in our pods or cocoon.

Prolonged social isolation can lead to loneliness, which has escalated significantly with COVID-19's curtailment of connections. Physical distancing guidelines have changed how people congregate in churches, gather to celebrate, spectate and interact in the workplace.

Loneliness tends to lead to overthinking, rumination and negative thinking. As people feel lonelier, they tend not to seek out companionship. Confidence declines. They may hold a negative bias when interacting and fear being hurt or rejected.

We need to take loneliness seriously as it has been associated with premature death, higher suicide* rates, depression, stress, irritability, sleep disruption and other mental and physical conditions. It is associated with increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and dementia.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham University, loneliness and social isolation is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Life events, such as loss, can trigger or magnify loneliness. Mourning alone amplifies grief. Substance abuse, eating disorders and the use of pain killers and sedatives sometimes feature to ease the distress and emptiness.

The pandemic and its restrictions has increased the onset of psychopathology and intensified pre- existing psychological disorders. People with a diagnosed mental health condition are more at risk to loneliness and lonely people are more likely to develop mental health conditions.

Loneliness is a health issue with serious psychological and physical implications. Public health messaging is essential for people to understand how to identify signs of loneliness in their communities and educational and workplace settings.

Tracking and the identification of those at risk is fundamental in the provision of interventions. Policymakers need to urgently address the fall-out and cumulative effects of pandemic restrictions.

Peer counselling can be a source of support to those experiencing loneliness. Connecting with others of the same age group who have gone through similar has been found to have positive impacts.

Community initiatives organised by local sports clubs, churches and other organisations have proven to be effective and needs to be maintained.

Social infrastructure plays a role in combatting loneliness. Community green spaces, communal meeting places, accessible sporting grounds and outdoor activities connect people. Seeing a group playing boules in a park recently was a refreshing sight. A new relationship with the outdoors year round needs to be part of our future with outdoor heating and shelter.

Digital training and accessibility to all prevents digital exclusion. When face to face interactions are risky or people need to isolate, this has to be available. We can’t disconnect people. Technology is playing a role in maintaining interactions with online learning, courses and hobbies.

Others may need to step back from overdependence on technology and find ways to develop close friendships rather than accumulating social media "friends". Connecting with others on a more human level.

If you are experiencing loneliness, reach out to organisations, old friends and invite people over if at all possible. No matter how hard it may seem, be a joiner.

Engage in healthy distractions and identify what stimulates you. Cerebral pursuits include reading, learning a language, listening to podcasts or to the radio. Physical activities, such as sea swimming, running, walking, yoga or cycling help our mental states and releases tension from the body. For others, they may need creative outlets, such as painting, writing or playing a musical instrument.

Mindfulness meditation can have an impact on emotional states and thought processes. It helps the person to stay grounded in the present. Neuroscientists have found that the parietal lobe region of the brain overheats when people feel separated. Regular meditation practice cools it down and helps creates a sense of oneness and feeling connected to everyone.

Having a pet has numerous benefits as scientific studies show. Pets can offer companionship, provide you with a sense of purpose and get you out walking and interacting.

Schedule daily routines, something to look forward to and complete tasks that give you a sense of achievement.

Helping others boosts well- being and is a recurring factor found in research on happiness. Doing something meaningful can mitigate the experience of loneliness. Joining a voluntary group, helping a charity or getting involved with community or church events can be fulfilling and ease the suffering.

Thoughts are powerful. As loneliness spirals, thinking deteriorates which exacerbates the loneliness. Keep an eye out for thought patterns and themes then work on keeping thoughts healthy, accurate and helpful.

For many, it may become all too overwhelming or depression features and it is a wise move to seek support from your GP, a Psychologist or Counsellor who has an interest and experience with this area.

You do not have to be alone in your loneliness.