Lonely... but not alone

These are difficult times for our social lives. This also applies to our students, who imagined life in another city, or even another country, so differently. Sitting alone in a room and partly studying online can lead to loneliness and, in the long run, even gloom and anxiety. In this collection of stories, we want to encourage our students with advice, a listening ear and activities that are indeed still possible.  The stories are also interesting for non-students, because they give insight in the world of our young people.

Read below the interview with psychiatrist Suzanne van Bronswijk or click through to initiatives against loneliness from: The Wellbeing Movement, @ease, The Innbetween, and the University Library.

Young man looking out over the river Meuse

Loneliness and what to do about it

Many of us suffer from it during these difficult times, loneliness. We can't see our friends and family as often as we would like; tutorials, lectures and work are almost entirely online, group exercise and team sports are banned and a beer in the pub isn’t possible. Basically, we miss our normal social interaction. But what exactly is loneliness, and more importantly, what can we do about it? Suzanne van Bronswijk, psychiatrist at MUMC+ and assistant professor at FPN, can tell us something about it: ‘Loneliness is a subjective experience. Even if those around you see you as a social person with many friends, you can still feel lonely. It is often not about the number of friends you have, but about the quality of your social relationships. You're lonely when you feel you're lonely. It’s not something anyone else can decide for you.’

Recent studies, including from Caring Universities, show that loneliness, depression and anxiety among young people have increased during the pandemic. Suzanne van Bronswijk also hears this in conversations with her students: ‘Fortunately, contact with students via Zoom can be done well. Students are often very open and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable online. In teaching sessions, I regularly ask the whole group about their experiences nowadays. We all have to give up something and deal with the consequences. How do they experience that? Sometimes I hear that they are less motivated and suffer from feelings of depression and anxiety. At the end of an online teaching session, I often stay online for students who want to talk a bit longer. Sometimes only for five minutes, but it's enough; and students regularly take advantage of the opportunity. If a student is absent from an online session, I send a personal email: You weren't there today, why not? Will you be there next time? This is a way I can stay engaged with them, even in this difficult time when I can't meet them in person.’

Suzanne van Bronswijk

Suzanne van Bronswijk
Psychiatrist at MUMC+ and assistant professor at Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience.

When might you feel lonely?

There are several risk factors which can be identified, and often there is a combination of these factors. A few examples: 

  • A limited social network
    Good social contacts reduce loneliness. But remember the more contacts the better does not apply to loneliness. If you have good contact with just four or five people, that probably can help protect you from loneliness.
  • An important social relationship has been lost
    You lost your partner, one of your parents died, or you moved to a new city to study and left your old life behind. Such experiences can increase the likelihood of loneliness.
  • Personal characteristics
    You don’t have strong social skills, you have a negative self-image and low self-confidence, or you experience feelings of social anxiety and are very shy.

What can we do about it?

There are various methods to combat loneliness. One is to improve a person’s social skills. Other ways are to increase people’s social networks and provide opportunities for social interaction, for example by organising events. There are also techniques are aimed at combating unhelpful thoughts. What are those? Van Bronswijk:  ‘Unhelpful thoughts are related to social situations. When you have unhelpful thoughts, you often see the social world as threatening and you have a more negative view of others. These negative expectations cause you to behave more negatively towards others. As a result, you inadvertently push away the others you so badly need. This will eventually make you see yourself as a victim of your social life, rather than an active player in social interaction. You then find yourself in a negative circle that is hard to break out of. For example, unhelpful thoughts about others can be triggered by seeing bad things on the news or when you can't get a hold of a friend. Examples of negative thoughts about others are: people cannot be trusted, everyone always abandons me, or they are always together and I am always alone. Try to use positive thoughts to counteract negative ones, limit contact with things that trigger negative thinking. If you have trouble doing that on your own, talk to someone.’

What can you do yourself?

Do you feel lonely? Then Suzanne van Bronswijk has some advice for you: “Take your feelings seriously and try the following:

  • Think about what loneliness means to you: is it about the number of social contacts in your life or their quality? Is it about having a partner or not belonging to a group?
  • Create a schedule for yourself in which you plan activities that make you feel good and are meaningful. Make sure you plan at least one of these activities every day.
  • Examine your unhelpful thoughts about your social world. If you notice that the news reinforces your negative outlook, make sure you don't watch/read the news all the time. Try not to make negative assumptions about others. Are you having trouble managing unhelpful thoughts on your own? Then go talk to a psychologist. They can help you get out of a negative spiral.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you notice that loneliness turns into psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.

The student psychologists have a lot of experience with these problems and can definitely help you. They are also readily accessible online. Don't hesitate to talk with someone. If you feel your symptoms are getting worse, don’t just think they’ll go away on their own. Everyone needs a listening ear from time to time, and especially during this difficult time.

Text: Margot Krijnen

Read more

Want to read more about loneliness? Or looking for tips and advice on how to tackle loneliness? Here you can read more about (social) activities that are still possible or find initiatives that can offer a listening ear.

Student Guidance
  See our student counseling options here