A different country, a different language, different customs. You’ve been thrown into the deep end in a new, unfamiliar environment so it’s no wonder that you may be feeling a little overwhelmed and well, maybe even lonely.
Simply put, it is thought that we feel lonely because we need to belong, and so we try to belong by forming relationships. However, when these needs aren’t met we feel lonely (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
A lot of positives can come from living abroad: making new friends, exploring new places and taking part in new and exciting experiences. But what do we do when reality suddenly hits us and we’re far away from home?
Research has demonstrated that, compared to natives, migrants are 9.1% more socially and emotionally lonely (Kate et al., 2020) and have high rates of social isolation (Strang & Quinn, 2014), which is strongly intertwined with feelings of loneliness.
My plans to study in China next year made me particularly interested in writing about this pertinent issue, and I wondered how I would overcome loneliness whilst living abroad. Roughly 5000 miles away no less!
Research has shown us what we can do to overcome loneliness when living abroad, and here are the top 5 ways, so read on!
Make genuine and satisfying connections
Lesson number one in overcoming loneliness when living abroad is to make genuine, lasting connections that make you happy.
Your best chance of this is to find like-minded people: those who may share an interest with you, share similar cultural or religious beliefs or with whom you share economical and political outlooks. Seek out those that you can bond with through shared interests to form a lasting and satisfying connection. This is supported by research that has shown that interacting with a similar person leads to closeness and long lasting relationships (Bryne, 1971). Further research has found that those who are more emotionally and socially lonely are in fact less happy with their relationships (Ponzetti, 1990), and research in migrant populations supports this (Kate et al., 2020).
Further research has shown that those who developed new friendships or enhanced existing ones were less lonely (Stevens, 2001), and that those who lacked friendships were lonely (Malikiosi-Loizos & Anderson, 1999). Particularly amongst migrants, research has shown that a one-to-one supportive relationship may be an effective way to reduce loneliness (Salway et al., 2020). This same research showed that support groups of similar people uniting to engage in activities may also have been an effective way to reduce loneliness (Salway et al., 2020).
So, it seems fairly reasonable to suggest that you should be forming genuine social connections that you are happy with, particularly with those who have similar interests to you.
There are plenty of ways to make friends, especially in our current digital era! The top best ways to make friends in a new place include:
- Join local sports teams
- Join groups supporting the local community
- Join a religious or cultural group
- Join a club for one of your hobbies (more on that to come!)
- Facebook groups
- Meet up apps
Reconnect with the wider world
As much as we may avoid and tend to forget about the outside world, given that our lives practically revolve around all things digital nowadays, connecting with the outside environment as much as possible is crucial for your health and to overcome loneliness.
Research by the BBC has revealed that those aged 16-24 have a high rate of feeling lonely; as high as 40% of those in this age category report feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’.
Are you surprised? Luckily, the natural environment has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness simply through immersing yourself in it. Evidence has shown that being outside can reduce loneliness, social isolation and improve mental health and wellbeing (World Health Organisation, 2017; Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, 2017). The University of Essex found that 95% of individuals who volunteered outdoors once per week said they felt improvements in their mental health six weeks on (Rogerson et al., 2017).
Well what are you waiting for? Reconnect with nature, go outside, breathe in some fresh air and admire the scenery. Whether you live in a built-up city or the countryside, find yourself a nice outdoor space where you can be alone with your thoughts, improve your wellbeing and hopefully feel a little less lonely in the process.
Find your social support bubble
It’s not hard to believe that loneliness and mental health are strongly linked, particularly research highlighting a link between loneliness and depression (Liu et al., 2014; Russell et al., 1978).
It may equally be unsurprising to hear that positive and frequent social support can benefit a person’s mental health (Wethington & Kessler, 1986; Harandi et al., 2017) and that when social support is poor, these same effects are detrimental (Wang et al., 2018).
Finding social support from relationships and groups of individuals is therefore important. Lonely individuals have often reported having less support from family and friends (Cutrona, 1982; Sarason et al., 1985) and have poorer depression outcomes (Wang et al., 2018).
A good social support bubble means better mental health, wellbeing and lower feelings of loneliness. This is the case for a variety of relationships, including romantic partners (Lee & Goldstein, 2015), friends (Lee & Goldstein, 2015) and family (Chang et al., 2017).
Some evidence even suggests that satisfying support from partners, friends and family decreases romantic loneliness, social loneliness and family loneliness respectively, and that emotional support is effective in reducing all three of these types of loneliness (Hombrados-Mendieta et al., 2012).
So, the answer is simple, build yourself a strong social support bubble, whether this be friends, family, a partner or a combination of the three, make sure you have a support network that you can trust and rely upon.
And if you’re struggling to grow your social support bubble, don’t worry! There are plenty of ways to do this whilst you’re abroad, most of which I have already mentioned, but you could also try taking part in local community events and activities or volunteering. Make sure to keep in contact with those you love at home as well. Build that social support bubble!
If you have your own hobbies that make you feel happy and fulfilled, you go for it! Research has shown that specific hobbies including music, reading and journaling actually lessen feelings of loneliness (Smith, 2012). Similar research has found that social hobbies in particular can help us feel less lonely (Conner et al., 2018; Pressman et al., 2009).
A list of social hobbies includes:
- Book / reading clubs
- Any team sports
- Running or hiking clubs
- Cookery classes
- Music clubs
- Amateur theatre groups
I’m sure we’re all familiar with Tom Daley’s recent knitting and crocheting obsession, which was brought to light after he was spotted at the Tokyo Olympics knitting a sweater for a dog (I mean, could he be any more adorable?) Well, he has stated his recent hankering for all things handmade helps him with his mental health and to keep calm when he’s under pressure. A recent study has found that engaging in activities such as knitting reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation (Geda et al., 2012) and that knitting can actually reduce anxiety and depression (Geda et al., 2012).
Now, I’m not saying you have to take up knitting or crocheting like Tom Daley (as cool as his creations may be!) but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that engaging in a hobby is beneficial for your wellbeing, in helping you feel less lonely and to benefit your mental health. So, whether you already have a hobby that you love, or whether you’ve been meaning to pick up a new one, crack on, and use the above for reference if need be!
Know when to seek help
Knowing when to seek help when you’re lonely is important. If you feel as though your feelings of loneliness are beginning to impact your day-to-day life, or your mental and physical health, it may be worth seeking more formal help, advice and support. Research has shown that greater feelings of loneliness are associated with depression, anxiety and negative mental health (Richardson et al., 2017; Losada et al., 2012; Mushtaq et al., 2014).
If you feel as if at any point your mental health is suffering as a result of your feeling lonely, it is important to speak to the right people, whether they may be those who you trust and confide in most or professional help. Below is a list of various helplines and services available in Ireland that can assist you if you are feeling lonely and you need support emotionally and or mentally:
Samaritans: Dedicated to help those who feel isolated or disconnected which may lead to suicide. 24/7 service. Contact number: 116 123. Website: https://www.samaritans.org
Turn2me: Peer support, self-help and professional help support online for those who feel they are experiencing symptoms of poor mental health. Free 24/7 crisis text service: 50808 Website: https://turn2me.ie
Grow: Mental health support service. Join an online support meeting on their website: https://grow.ie
Irish Advocacy Network: Support, information and peer advocacy for those with mental health struggles. Contact number: (01) 5470510 Website:
Remember: Being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely
It is important to remember, just because you’re alone this doesn’t mean that you’re lonely. You can enjoy your own company, be your own best friend and support yourself without feeling lonely. There is no need to compare yourself to others, and what the stereotypical image of ‘being lonely’ is. Just remember, do what makes you feel comfortable and what helps you to gain confidence, and remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel or to live your life.
So, there you have it, five scientifically proven ways to overcome loneliness when living abroad. It may seem a bit daunting at this stage, but everything you could possibly need to become a happier version of you is right at your fingertips.
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