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Mental Health Awareness 2022 - Loneliness

“When you feel all alone, and the world has turned its back on you.” A line from a song that summed up my loneliness during my depression years ago. A set of circumstances had left me completely alone in the world. All I had was my job and my horse.

Sylvia Bruce; a mental health specialist and content writer for the Riders Minds website shares her personal story. 

Mental health professionals generally define loneliness as a gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have. It’s also a subjective feeling.  People can also have a lot of contact and still be lonely, missing those meaningful connections, and/or be content by themselves.  
Many feel lonely from time to time, often feeling unconnected, paradoxically, in our technologically connected world.

  It's no ‘bad’ thing. In small doses, loneliness is like hunger or thirst, a healthy signal that you are missing something and to seek out what you need. Yet, prolonged over time, loneliness can be damaging not only your mental health, but physical health too.

Neuroscientists generally think that having evolved to seek safety in numbers, the human brain registers loneliness as a threat. The ‘danger monitoring’ areas, including the amygdala, go into overdrive, triggering release of “fight or flight” stress hormones eg cortisol.  Heart rates rise, blood pressure and blood sugar levels increase to provide energy in case of need.
Subconsciously, raised alert/stress levels mean a person may start to view others more as potential threats — sources of rejection or apathy — and less as friends and remedies for loneliness.

So loneliness is more than a word, more than a feeling. It has real consequences to our health and well-being. Being lonely, like forms of stress, increases the risk of emotional disorders. That wreaks havoc on many levels – physiology, behavioural, thoughts - and less obviously, can put people at greater risk of physical ailments that seem unrelated, like heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension.

I can vouch for all that. The loneliness gap between having no connections and what I desired, significantly contributed to my depression. Yet, how to re-connect, with myself let alone with people, the very cause of my depression? Connections were craved yet simultaneously threatening.


Even now, many people find it unfathomable that I really had no-one back then, even question, doubt my experience. That attitude then, as it does now for many, contributed to my silent loneliness.  
I didn’t want pity. I wanted to be heard, listened to, believed, be supported, to re-connect and re-build my life.
My physical health also suffered. I was diagnosed with a depression, stress-related life-threatening illness. A shocking fact to learn.
 

  In my experience,  loneliness has benefits though. I grew up lonely. I learned very early self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-protection and safety the hard way. Although no access to pony club or anything like that, the family pony eased my loneliness. He was my best friend, sole companion, my safety in a dysfunctional family.

 
In adulthood, during my depression, my horse was again my lifeline, at times the only thing worth living for. My pony/horse relationship needed no words, limiting my ability to speak up, express, articulate or communicate with people.  But I had no-one to speak to, so that didn’t matter anyway.  I’d tried talking, to connect, reach out, but sensed others withdraw, not wanting to know or listen. So I gave up. My loneliness continued;  my mental state deteriorated.

In my darkest times, when attempting to end my life, I didn’t write notes. I had no-one to write notes to. I felt embarrassed, humiliated, an excruciating sadness, a freak even admitting that.

Who wants to admit such loneliness? That’s not how one should feel; not how things should be. No-one should have no-one. And, what did that say about me?

The pandemic has certainly raised the incidence of loneliness.  Yet, loneliness stigma exists and admitting it can be tough. Mental Health Foundation talks about community and how it plays a part in reducing loneliness. Although I wore a mask, two communities during my depression provided a semblance of normality, OKness, a temporary escape from my personal demons and gifted a sense of belonging.  

Weekdays my workplace community where I did my job well; weekends my riding and livery yard community, my happiest place, where I could talk, be and do, all things horses.

  I thought I was alone. It took the darkest of times to show me otherwise.  Overcoming our own beliefs and thoughts can be the hardest thing. For example, I didn’t believe or trust anyone could handle what I had to say. I was so wrong. I finally talked. I fully recovered.


Our connection to other people and community is fundamental to protecting our mental health. We need to find better ways of tackling the epidemic of loneliness. Whilst any community can have challenges, community combats loneliness. The equestrian community is underpinned by a collective passion.  We can talk ponies and horses, forge friendships, share experiences, high and lows, be connected, and maintain privacy if we choose.

So, if you’re feeling lonely, reach out, and keep trying. If you sense someone’s not OK, ask, ask twice, thrice even rather than ignore. Smiles and acts of kindness work wonders, and above all, listen. Let’s all play our part in the equestrian community and beyond, and stay connected to reduce loneliness, and for 52 weeks a year, not only one. You really are not alone. I can vouch for that too.

Sylvia

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