Monday 18 July, 2022

Understanding Loneliness When Going Through Cancer

Antigone is a Counselling Psychologist at Mindler.

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According to our recent ‘Moments’ health study, 85% of those War On Cancer community members who took part reported feeling lonely throughout their cancer experience. Mental health and emotional wellbeing are such a vital part of a person’s cancer experience, whether you are newly diagnosed, in the middle of treatment, have completed treatment or a loved one. That’s why loneliness within the cancer community is something we’re trying to combat.

In this article, written by Antigone Lanitis, Counselling Psychologist at Mindler, they explain what loneliness is, how it can impact those affected by cancer and provide practical advice for how you can combat it. 

What is loneliness?

Loneliness can be described as the feeling we experience when our need for social contact is not met. It’s a feeling we all experience, although every individual’s experience of loneliness can differ. 

Nevertheless, loneliness should not be confused with being alone. You may choose to be alone and have limited contacts with others and be perfectly content, whilst someone else may find this difficult. 

Of course having lots of social contact does not imply that you may not feel lonely, as feelings of loneliness may also be present when we are surrounded by others but don’t feel understood or cared for. 

Loneliness and mental health 

Loneliness is a feeling and in itself not a mental health problem. However, loneliness has been associated with mental health problems, as they can both influence each other. 

Having a mental health issue may increase the likelihood of feeling lonely, whilst feeling lonely can also have an adverse impact on mental health.

An example can be the stigma linked to mental health problems which can deter people from talking about it or even cause them to isolate themselves, which in turn can make them feel lonely. Similarly, having a physical illness, such as cancer, can often come with its own set of stigmas leaving many people to avoid talking about it or their experiences.

Mental health issues such as social anxiety, which is the difficulty in engaging in activities that involve others, can in turn cause a decrease in social interactions and contribute to feelings of loneliness. 

Furthermore, if feelings of loneliness persist for a long time, they can have an adverse impact on mental health. Studies suggest that loneliness is linked with a higher risk of specific mental health issues such as increased stress, low self esteem, depression and anxiety. 

Why do people feel lonely? 

People feel lonely for various reasons and sometimes may even be unable to identify what it is about a certain experience that makes them feel lonely. 

Specific life events can make you feel lonely, such as a bereavement, a relationship ending or a new health diagnosis. Or, changes in day-to-day settings such as starting a new job, beginning university or moving to a new area can also mean less interaction with others as you may not know anyone. 

Some may also feel lonely at specific times of the year, like at Christmas. 

Studies suggest that certain people are more prone to feelings of loneliness. These include people with no friends or family, people who are estranged from their family, single parents or carers that find it difficult to have a social life, or individuals belonging to minority groups that live far away from others from a similar background. People that are unable to attend social activities due to money or mobility problems or long term health problems can also experience more loneliness. Furthermore, people who have experienced sexual or physical abuse and find it difficult to build close relationships can suffer from loneliness.

Loneliness and cancer 

Studies suggest that the experience of having an illness or a changed health status can leave people feeling alone with their body. Therefore, a cancer diagnosis can be accompanied by feelings of loneliness which is often exacerbated if it’s coupled with a lack of social support. 

Feeling singled out and not feeling understood, whilst loved ones distance themselves (cancer ghosting), are all factors that can contribute to the feelings of loneliness in people with cancer. 

Additionally, people with cancer may also have to go through periods of physical isolation to reduce the risk of infections, which also increases their risk of experiencing loneliness.

Nevertheless, there has been research to suggest that the initial feelings of loneliness seem to ease when people find others in a similar situation and a sense of community. Thankfully, with the advances in technology we are able to meet like minded people online when in person meetings are not possible. It’s the exact reason we are here.   

Ways to cope with loneliness 

We all experience loneliness differently, which is why identifying why you feel the way you feel is important. Try thinking of what loneliness means to you, how it makes you feel and what you could change. If you’re finding it difficult to hone in on what might be contributing to the feeling of loneliness, it may be useful to think of what you want from life, what interests you and who you like being around so that you can put things in place to work towards.  

As previously mentioned, even being around lots of people can make us feel lonely if we don’t feel heard or cared for. Therefore it is vital to think of quality of relationships rather than quantity and spend time with people that make you feel good and understood. 

Use technology and social media to your advantage. Try to engage with friends and family online when you are unable to meet up in person, follow things that are of interest to you or try to find events in your local area using visiting sites. 

Try to learn something new, or engage in something you used to enjoy. Learning something new or getting progressively better at something, increases our confidence and in turn can help with our self esteem and can also be a means of meeting new people. 

Mindler is an online therapy platform that utilises the CBT approach and a blended model. This involves time with your therapist, alongside resources that are readily available on the app itself. Relaxation techniques previously mentioned in this article such as soothing breathing and practising mindful awareness are available on the Mindler app under our iCBT programmes.

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