15 September 2016

Out Scotland Country Manager, Emily Watts, talks to us about the Loneliness Summit, and why maintaining social connections is vital for our health. 

A family all at home in different rooms on their phones.

Three of our team attended the Befriending Networks Loneliness Summit in Edinburgh last week. I think the speakers gave us all pause for thought. We work on projects that we know act as an antidote to loneliness and support the building of social capital. We see the effect of Big Lunches across the country in making people feel better about where they live and the people they live next to, and we are honoured to meet and connect people across the UK through the Big Lunch Extras programme, working on projects locally that mean something to them.

But the things we heard at the Loneliness summit brought it home why all of this is so important. Professor Sabina Brennan from Trinity College in Dublin told us all how loneliness can affect the brain structures. When we are lonely, our primal instinct kicks in and our brain actually changes its structure and chemistry. Our responses in social situations are dampened and more sensitive to negativity. We lose the ability to empathise with others – we become focused on self-preservation, not making social connections. It’s not a deficiency in any of us, but a longstanding survival technique. Loneliness hurts. Our clever brains try to make it hurt less.

Dr. Peter Cawston, a Glasgow GP and Clinical Lead for the Scottish Government Links Worker Programme, spoke poignantly about the experiences of patients at his surgery who, amongst other issues, experience loneliness. He told us how the Links Worker project, by encouraging GPs to take longer on each appointment in order to be able to listen to patients, and by encouraging the staff at the practice to take care of their own wellbeing, was enabling people attending the surgery who are experiencing loneliness to develop support groups. It seems we really are all better when we look after our own wellbeing – it enables us to reach out to others much more easily.

Our perspective is that while we love what we do, and we feel incredibly lucky to work on something so positive, there are much harder edged outcomes to getting together and sharing food, or ideas. It enables us to develop those connections to other people that our brains and bodies need so that we can be as healthy as possible.

As someone who has experienced loneliness and who has had friends who’ve also had deep experiences of this, I know how very important keeping our social connections live is. And I understand how difficult it can be when the walls of your loneliness make you feel even more alone. It’s why we advocate reaching out. It’s good for all of us, and as Eden always says, we’re better equipped to face the challenges we face when we face them together.

We really are all better when we look after our own wellbeing – it enables us to reach out to others much more easily.