‘It’s not something to be embarrassed about’: My experience of dealing with loneliness
As part of our Unite Against Loneliness campaign, student writer Ashlea talks openly about her own experiences of loneliness at university.
“The best years of your life”. Every student has heard this at least once when talking about going to uni and felt the invisible pressure that those words hold.
Uni is new, fun and exciting but it's also scary, and that's something that isn’t often fully explored. So many people talk about the scary parts of uni being making friends or learning to cook and clean for yourself, but people don’t generally acknowledge the challenges it can bring.
In any other circumstance, the concept of moving to a new city with people you’ve never met sounds like something from a TV game show, not the reality for thousands of students every year. The random allocation of rooms and flats can mean that you end up with people that are absolutely nothing like you, or so like you that it's impossible not to clash.
Being placed with up to nine other people with the immense pressure to make friends and get on for the next year can feel like the most intimidating thing in the world, and if you don’t get on? Well, that's when loneliness can set in.
I normally associate the word loneliness with people who live alone or the elderly, not students. However, it can actually be extremely common and, when broke down, it actually makes a lot of
sense. Just because you’re living with other people, it doesn’t mean that you all get on or all even speak the same first language.
In fact, being around others who are unlike you can feel even more isolating than being on your own. Struggling to find common ground, feeling like you don’t fit in, or even being the only girl or boy in a flat can lead to feeling as though you might have made the wrong decision in moving to uni. It can seem scary, and this can also lead to feelings of loneliness.
In my first year, I lived in halls and really enjoyed it, but it didn’t always run smoothly. Flat disagreements, a breakdown of a friendship and a few tears all happened before Christmas, making me wonder if I had made the right decision.
Despite having friends both in my accommodation and on my course, sometimes I felt like I was the only person in the whole flat, because everyone else was doing their own thing. Slowly, I started to develop some coping mechanisms and ways to feel less alone.
How I coped with the loneliness I felt
Firstly, I accepted that, while we had a university in common, this didn’t mean we all had to be friends. Talking to other students led me to realise that some of the people I was around were only my friends because we had been forced into the same situation, not because we had built a friendship based on common interests.
Also, with all of us doing different courses, we had different workloads and different ways of working. Some of us were night owls or early risers, some of us preferred working in our rooms, and some preferred libraries.
Still, I’d always try and go into the kitchen if I heard someone in there. Just asking about someone’s day or course can start creating common ground, and it’s important to recognise that not every friend has to be someone that you think you’ll stay in touch with forever.
Secondly, I would encourage myself to go outside everyday and get some fresh air. This is especially important with the current circumstances around Covid-19 and remote learning. Seeing other people in the city centre would instantly make me feel less alone.
It also helped me get to know the city I was living in, which in turn improved my confidence. I found that this then started to rub off in other situations. It gave me the opportunity to show my flatmates somewhere cool I found for lunch, or take them for a nice walk. In fact, even being able to direct them somewhere was useful as a conversation starter.
How acceptance and conversation can help
Finally, it’s so important to talk, especially to family and friends at home, and maintain existing support networks. I feel like there’s a stigma around saying you’re lonely, and that many students struggle to accept that they are actually feeling lonely.
It’s an emotion that isn’t talked about that regularly among young people, but it’s not something you should ever be embarrassed of. In fact, most people have or will feel lonely at least once in their life.
Normalising the use of the word ‘lonely’ to describe how you’re feeling will encourage others to recognise this and use it in the same way. Vitally, if you think your loneliness is getting worse or the feelings won’t go away, remember that there are lots of people and organisations that you can get help or support from.