Loneliness is a complex, often hidden experience that we’re all at risk of. Amy Brann reports on where to focus if we are to meet the client ‘where they’re at’.
I’m sat in a room of 150 people. At least 75 of them are climbing and crawling or some just lying there. Some whimpering, some crying, snot erupting from their noses – most of that group are under two but one of the adults blubbering away was me.
I still remember it vividly. The high ceiling in this church hall-come-toddler morning venue adding to the sense of distance. Yet there were people sat all around me. Kind people. People who would have talked to me, listened to me, connected with me.
But when a person feels lonely, they may not have the courage or strength in that moment to voice it. To be vulnerable enough to even let anyone know how much they’re struggling.
Loneliness is a complex, subjective experience and unfortunately something we’re all at risk of. In a recent UK study, The Loneliness Experiment, it was found that 40% of people aged 15-24 were experiencing loneliness. The same study found 27% of people over 75 would say they experienced loneliness. So, we know for sure that it isn’t something reserved only for the older generation. I was 29 when I felt that acute sense of being alone. Despite most of the time having a gorgeous baby firmly clamped to my breast. Pretty intimate really, right?
So how does this experience of loneliness work, then? It clearly isn’t always about having people around you. I had a loving husband at home and friends I could call and see in minutes. Yet I felt like no one was seeing me or understanding how I was feeling. And this is completely normal with loneliness.
Loneliness and the brain
At Synaptic Potential, we’re all about understanding how brains work. And the research around loneliness has been increasing in recent years. We know that we see structural and functional differences in the prefrontal cortex, insula, hippocampus, amygdala and posterior superior temporal cortex as well as attentional and visual networks and the default mode network.
The brain of a lonely person may be hypervigilant and have an increased sensitivity to stress. The networks responsible for rumination and negative feelings may be stronger. People experiencing loneliness may be more tuned in to pick up negative or threatening stimuli…which could interfere with positive relationship building. The brain may also be wired to alter what’s called our social approach motivation…meaning people could literally be less inclined to reach out and connect with others!
That said, the most important thing you need to understand about loneliness is that our perception of things is critical. How we filter information and attach meaning to it is critical.
Focusing on action too quickly. Meet the client where they’re at. The surface-level steps of ‘spending time with friends’ may not relieve someone’s loneliness if they’re not in the right state. It could even compound the negative feelings.
Make it work
So, how do we coach a person experiencing loneliness? There are four things I’d focus on:
- Connect to your contribution
Vulnerability tops the list because unless someone can step into that space it’s unlikely other things will work as well.
Being vulnerable is a critical ingredient to creating psychologically safe environments, to cushion against loneliness. My top tips to being vulnerable, or inviting others to be vulnerable are:
- Remember, no-one is perfect, even if they appear to be
- Recognise that’s okay! It is illogical, and even dangerous, to expect yourself or others to be perfect
- Practise with something that is on the edge of your comfort zone first
- Next push yourself to open up a little further
Neuroplasticity links closely to vulnerability in the context in which we’re exploring it here. Recognising that while you aren’t perfect, and that’s okay, you also can and do change. The brain is designed to be adaptable. So, some coaching around mindset towards this can bring a lot of hope. The optimism and openness to change is a great space for someone to be in to move into the next two opportunities. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are a huge range of character traits that correlate with the likelihood that a person may experience loneliness. Knowing one can proactively work on all aspects of oneself to make changes is hugely freeing.
Coaching collaboration is about helping people to see the opportunities they have to do something with others. The way this works is almost to sidestep the issue of loneliness altogether. When people come together to work on something, the process of all focusing on the same thing, pulling in the same direction, is powerful. The side effects are that low mood can be uplifted, how things are being processed can be shifted and that subjective experience of loneliness can decrease.
Connect to your contribution
Connecting people to their contribution: this again has multiple modes of action in the brain and can be highly effective. It can protect against loneliness and a huge range of other negative subjective experiences people go through. At its core you want to help people retrain their brains to regularly sort for how they are contributing. This could be at work to colleagues or to projects, at home to family, in society to causes or movements or to friends.
Remember that loneliness is one of those hidden experiences…often even from those suffering from its effects. Together we can normalise it and reduce its prevalence…because it doesn’t need to be this way.
Find out more
- There’s a chapter on loneliness in the latest edition of Neuroscience for Coaches with loads of fresh research and insights www.neuroscienceforcoaches.com
- You can also check out my LinkedIn learning course: How to Beat Workplace Loneliness.
About the author
- Amy Brann is the author of Neuroscience for Coaches (Kogan Page, 2014), and founder and CEO of Synaptic Potential