Letting Go!

Change begins with a choice and happens when you realize that you’re not a passive victim of life but you have the power to take responsibility for how you want it to turn out.

by Ketina Mugwisa

Have you ever noticed the impact of your thoughts on what you do?

The way we think shapes our responses to life. Our behavior follows what is in our minds, what we believe, and the way we evaluate events and problems. Our self-talk (internal monologue) largely shapes our emotions. Negative thoughts profoundly impact our moods and behavioral choices which impact our self-esteem. Thoughts and feelings combined make up a personal character. Reconstructing our thinking can change us for the better. Remember there is always someone who will sit and listen to your story in a nonjudgmental way and give you comfort and this should not go unappreciated.

Well! That was my personal experience when I first come to the university.


I hated varsity for almost three-quarters of my first semester there. I had been offered Psychology for undergrad studies instead of what I wanted, Social Work. I felt trapped, psychology didn’t resonate with me, I couldn’t see it in my life. I didn’t see a point in trying to believing that I could make it with a psychology degree. I refused to even research about it and lecturers sounded like Greek to me. If someone had asked me what psychology was all about, I couldn’t even explain until 2 weeks before end of semester exam. Can you imagine!


I first encountered the Friendship Bench on World Mental Health Day when they came to speak at my uni. I got a chance to talk to one of its members, Tiny, who showed me that psychology wasn’t so bad after all and that if I took time some time to reflect, the Greek would eventually make sense to me. After sharing with him what I was going through, he helped me understand and become aware of my own negative thoughts, and how I had been limiting myself with my own beliefs and cognitive distortions. He encouraged me to view life with an open mind just like psychology encourages us to do. And to try and replace my negative thought with more positive, noble, lovely, and admirable thoughts. He helped me realize that by making a choice to change how I viewed things it was giving me courage and strength a lesson I would later make a person mandate in my life, to always give things a chance!

Hand touching brain and network connection on glitter bright lights colorful background


I have always been a person of ‘Faith’ and faith has always helped me redirect from my own shortcomings and weakness and pointed me towards power that I never knew I possessed. As such the spiritual part of my experience is a viable source of inspiration and strength that has helped me attain a positive change in my life. As I began to give psychology a chance, I began to notice some subtle similarities between psychology and religious theology. I realized that although history has repeatedly pitted them against one another their message was the same, the only difference was the messenger. Looked at from an objective perspective religious behavior and religious belief are based on various models of human nature and many psychological concepts. Just like how psychology encourages people to feel good about themselves and become overwhelmed by emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, or anxiety, religion promotes love, happiness and companionship, and above all something to believe in.


The Creator, as I believe him to be, is said to have given us humans free will, the power of choice which enables us to choose the way we think and reason. You can’t control obstacles life sets for you, but you can control how you overcome them. Change begins with a choice and happens when you realize that you’re not a passive victim of life but you have the power to take responsibility for your own mental health by choosing to think positively. Life is a precious gift, you must cherish it and care for it and that also includes your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. If you feel under pressure, scared beyond measure, or lost close treasure only remember you are not defined by circumstances and you can’t limit yourself despite what people might say. You have the power to create a different story about yourself not as a victim but as a conqueror and by normalizing positive thinking, you normalize victory.

I would like to end by quoting William James regarded as the father of American Psychology’s life-changing words which say;

The greatest discovery of my generation is the fact that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

William James

It is never too late nor too early to change the way you think!


I wanted so desperately to be loved and accepted and to have someone who cared about me. I’ve always felt like this in relationships, and so I sacrifice myself, I give and give and give and people take and take and take.

My name is Lewelin* and I am a member of the LGBTQAI community.

I was on the verge of losing it all, my problems had gotten the best of me, to the point that even those around me were noticing my change in attitude and behaviours.  I noticed the change within me, but I didn’t have energy to do anything, everything had become meaningless. I was having suicidal thoughts at the time and death seemed like it was the only and rather a welcoming option, there really was nothing much to live for- nothing I could see at least.

All my romantic relationships had failed, l thought and felt like people were only using me, maybe I let them, I wanted so desperately to be loved and accepted and to have someone who cared about me. I’ve always felt like this in relationships, and so I sacrifice myself, I give and give and give and people take and take and take. l had to prove something, l needed to be the strong one, l had to be there for everyone, but one day I realised no one was there for me and that knocked me, I became dark with resentment. The weight of other people was affecting me so much that l ended up having personality issues. A friend of mine decided to talk to me about how my attitude and behaviour had changed and if l continued with this bitterness l was going to lose everyone l love. How could l agree with him when l thought my friends were the centre of my problems!? This same friend gave me something that l am forever grateful for – the Friendship Bench number!

He told me to get in touch with them – you will thank me later he said. At first l did not want to contact them as l believed that doing therapy was some white thing. However, one day when l felt l needed answers for why certain things were happening to me l thought let me contact them, what did I have to lose I asked myself. I WhatsApp-ed to book an appointment and not long after the peer counsellor contacted me. On the very first day l had said everything l was feeling inside, and I was listened to, for once I wasn’t the one doing the listening- this already was amazing to me! As I shared we worked to outline all the problems I was facing and then specified which ones I felt were important for me to work on to make the changes I needed, and was relieved to hear we only work one at a time, I couldn’t have done more than one by one they felt so big.

The counsellor started asking me some questions to help me open up and start formulating a way forward out of the struggle I was in. We came up with something – a workable manageable action plan- that l had to do in our various sessions, this helped a lot; working in steps that is, and knowing that the support was there as I went through them. Going through these sessions was the best thing l did, l felt like a heavy load was taken off my shoulders and I realised that I can be the strong one but also be a human being who needs to be heard and needed to learn what healthy boundaries looked like!

*Names are changed to respect clients privacy

Training With Friendship Bench! An Enlightening Experience.

ho knew learning could be enjoyable. We danced, laughed, played games and took a lot of pictures!


Where to start, the interview. I sat waiting anxiously for the interview, thoughts racing; was I dressed right, what questions were they going to ask, should I have prepared more, what am I doing here… It’s true what they say, our minds can make mountains out of mole hills.

I was pleasantly surprised! There the Friendship Bench team arrived with friendly smiles and warm greetings, phew! In the interview it felt like I was talking to old friends, I don’t remember most of what I said because they made it conversational, as opposed to me with my inner thoughts ‘is this a trick question’ what is the ‘right’ response they want. In no time at all we were done and I was given my travelling letter and training schedule.


As I recovered from the interview nerves so started training nervousness, it was great we started off the day early and so I was quickly put at ease when I arrived at the venue and was greeted by the Friendship Bench Grandmothers and a few Grandfathers. Excitement was in the air, everyone eager and happy to be part of this training.

After a Circle Kubatana Tose round where everyone introduced themselves and shared how they were feeling we went straight into the first module which was ‘kufungisisa’ the Shona term for depression and anxiety. I was enlightened! I didn’t know that this disease was so common, imagine 1 in 4 people will suffer from a CMD at some point of their life!  Neither did I realise it could affect anyone, whether young or old, high income or low income; this was a needed eye opener. We also really came to understand how necessary a community-based intervention like the Friendship Bench is for all of us to have access to.

Training progressed well, each day was a new learning day and trainers kept checking in on if we we’re grasping the concept, especially the problem-solving steps at the core of the intervention.  Their constant check ins meant the morning evaluations were a time to refine what we learnt the previous day and not something to get anxious over.  These nerves are a constant theme in my life!

Then the role plays, this was a push I didn’t know I needed but I am unbelievably grateful for them! I went from being the little shy introvert to taking stage, my confidence went up a notch and the trainers reaffirmed that what I was doing was right. I’m sure the trainers recognized I needed a confidence boost because on day 5 I had to give a presentation on mental health. Something I would never have managed before but I did it! And I enjoyed it! AND, I now know I am capable of more than I think.


Final day of training, day 8 of 8, no one wanted the training to end, we had spent an intense past 7 days learning together, sharing stories and soaking up the Grandmothers experiences. Who knew learning could be enjoyable. We danced, laughed, played games and took a lot of pictures! Although it was great to pass and get our certificates it was also so sad to be closing off our training, but equally underlying excitement to be able to get out into the community and let people know that mental health care is accessible and available for all.

My heartfelt thanks goes to Mbuya Chengetayi, Mbuya Bernice, Mbuya Charmaine and Mbuya Tendayi, because of you guys, I can now be called a Mbuya too!

The Listening Bench, with Layman Human

LONDON, Battersea Park, near to the Peace Pagoda, Thursdays 10.30-1.30

BE A PART OF THE GLOBAL HEALING. Listening matters! Being heard means being seen and acknowledged, as humans we all need this to feel we belong in this world. More often than not, when people share their struggles they are not looking for someone to give them a solution or to fix the issue, they are merely looking to connect and let free the noise and turmoil whirling around within them. We can only survive for so long with a plastered smile and ‘I’m fine’ response, at some point it catches up.

If you’re in London, around Battersea Park, near to the Peace Pagoda, Thursdays 10.30-1.30, visit the Listening Bench! Read on to find out more… 🙂

Hello, my name is Stuart Frobisher. I’m also Layman Human, I’m a musician from London, UK, and I’m honoured to have been asked to contribute to the Friendship Bench Zimbabwe blog!

My background is that I am a pianist/singer-songwriter, I have taught music in Inner London schools for 22 years, I have practised Zen for 7 years, and I studied Humanistic Counselling Skills at Gestalt centre in London on a 1-year course. And I am a grandfather (not a grandmother, unfortunately).  I have learned and practised to listen, to hear people’s needs, and to empathise, not to analyse or dispense wisdom. People will find their own way if they are given space and support. There have been times in my life when that was what happened for me, and it was so important.

A few months ago I realised I wanted to start a Public Listening Service. I basically wanted to sit on a bench in a park, and if someone wants to talk, I will listen. I wanted to use what I seem to have learned from my life so far, which is: knowing that someone else cares and will hear me, can be enough to give me the strength to find my way. People have done it for me when I needed it, I have been lucky. I wanted to give it back. It seems like more and more people have no-one to talk to. They don’t necessarily need psychological intervention, just someone they can open up to, maybe to get a handle on their worries or problems.

I thought about some guidelines for myself, and wondered just how to get started. Then one night, my wife was listening to BBC Radio, and she heard about the amazing and powerful project of The Friendship Bench. When she told me about it in the morning, I said, that’s it! That’s exactly what I mean!

I wrote to everyone at the Friendship Bench to ask for some advice and support, and also to offer anything I could by way of help for them, if that was something that was possible. I was so moved when Dixon replied personally, within a day. Inspired by Dixon’s communications, and the further great support from Jean, I have been energised to see my idea through.

So last week was my second visit to the bench I have chosen as ‘The Listening Bench.’ It’s along the river Thames in Battersea Park, near to the Peace Pagoda. I go on Thursdays from 10.30 – 1.30.

Even though no-one has stopped yet, I am encouraged by the interest my sign is getting. I also made some cards for people to take. This is what is on the card:

I’m looking forward to a Listening Bench conversation, knowing that the evidence is all there from Friendship Bench Zimbabwe, that it really is good to talk. People are suffering in our city as everywhere, but there is also a great movement for healing. If I can be a small part of that healing, connecting with people and providing a way for people to be heard, I will be a happy man.

Thank you to all the Grandmothers and to Friendship Bench Zimbabwe for your inspiration and encouragement. Peace and Love!

Layman Human, Stuart Frobisher – The Listening Bench

Life as a young adult with an unwanted pregnancy

I had used the whole safe period method and I also took a morning after pill, so I was certain that I was not pregnant until the day I missed my period.

“Being alone and having no one to talk to is the worst feeling ever.”

Kuziva* Friendship Bench Client

My name is Kuziva*. I’m a 20 year old girl and I’m a University student in Zimbabwe.

I was going through post abortion depression. This all started after I aborted the pregnancy that I was not prepared for. I had used the whole safe period method and I also took a morning after pill, so I was certain that I was not pregnant until the day I missed my period. Thereafter I took the pregnancy test and it tested positive. I was extremely shocked and from then I cried every single day. I was not ready for parenting, l was in school and was afraid  of  the drama that would come after my parents knew about the pregnancy.  I knew that I could not keep the baby because the circumstances that  I was in could not allow that. l decided to seek help. A friend of mine linked me to some ‘professional doctor’ and the abortion process was carried out successfully.

However, once the abortion had been done, I was left with a lot of negative feelings. I started to question myself, l had feelings of regret and guilt. I could not forgive myself and the abortion haunted me day and night. I felt like a murderer and I was also scared that maybe I had lost my chance of being human again. I felt l had lost the only chance  of having a baby. I was not able to open up to people around me. I always looked okay around people and yet inside l was suffering. Every time I thought about the abortion I would break down and I cry, every night since it happened I would sit at night in the dark scared to close my eye, and again I would cry, I think the exhaustion from crying got me to sleep.

In one of WhatsApp groups I was in, there was a discussion on depression. After that discussion l knew l was going through depression and l needed someone to talk to. One of the facilitators in the group posted a flier for the Friendship Bench Online Sessions. It was then that I realized that I needed  help and immediately booked my sessions. The online sessions helped me  express all my fears and worries without being judged. It really felt like a safe space for me  to talk about  what l was going through and after each session l felt empowered to take on life again. I have managed to open up about my experiences and it has given me the courage to help people with the same situation as the one I had.

My life has a new meaning now. Being alone and having no one to talk to was the worst feeling ever but now I know there are people to talk to who won’t judge or criticize. The Friendship Bench is for everyone.

* Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Yes, my wife beat me.

I was embarrassed, ashamed, and wanted to take my life. But I didn’t. I realised I was more than those beatings. I have more in me and I have my children to care for and who care for me.

Roy*, Friendship Bench Client

Being a man who is being beaten by his wife is something that all men cover up, it’s an embarrassment, it means we are not really men in our culture . We walk with our heads high on the outside, our chests out and hold deep voiced conversations full of strength, but inside, inside we are being torn apart by shame, anxiety and depression.

My name is Roy* and l am aged 42. I am married with 4 children. Before Covid-19 started l was employed as a gardener and my wife as a maid. Unfortunately, l lost my job but was lucky to have my wife continue with her work. I began to see the other side of my wife; that is when the beatings started. Whenever l asked for food l was replied by a slap on my face. l lost my dignity as the man of the house as l had nothing to put on the table. I tried to look for something to do but due to this Covid-19 pandemic nothing materialised. One day when l got back to the house, it was empty all the children were not there. When l got in contact with my wife, she told me that she had taken the kids to her mother as l was unable to feed them as their father. I was heartbroken, torn in pieces. I saw myself as a failure and useless, l thought the best solution there was to take my own life.

It was not an easy decision; l did not have a plan and the courage to do it. One of my neighbours saw how troubled l was and approached me but l could not share anything with him. He talked to me about the Friendship Bench which was a free counselling service offered by the Lay Health Workers at our local clinic. I decided to try that out.

I met with one of the Lay Health Workers who said she was there to listen, she told me there would be no judgement but that I needed to talk about what was happening at home or it would make me sick, she said I was already showing the signs of ‘kufungisisa’ (thinking too much in the local Shona language, roughly translated in depression and anxiety) according to the 14 questions we went through . Opening up about the beatings was something that l had not done before to anyone, because l felt l was not man enough, but Ambuya Utano (the Lay Health Worker) was able to create an environment where l felt safe and understood, she just nodded and shook her head, she didn’t laugh or raise her eyebrows and she told me she had a few men who talked similarly to her and that I wasn’t alone. To learn it wasn’t only me helped me to share, I found myself pouring out my agonies. For the first time l felt I was being myself, I was allowed to share the truth, it was different from sharing stories with friends where I needed to pretend all was okay and my wife was good and she was just visiting her mother for holidays.  

As l was suicidal, one of the questions that the grandmother asked me really helped to make a smart decision of my life. She asked me if l had planned anything for those that were remaining behind since l was planning to take my life. I began to think about my children and realised how selfish l really wanted to be, l had nothing left for them, and I knew they needed a father, too many neighbours had lost a parent and one parent was not enough. From then on, l decided to go back home and keep looking for work, for my kids I wanted to show them not to give up but to keep trying.

I am thankful to Friendship Bench, l am alive today because of you. I am working hard today for my kids because of you. I have accepted myself and have inner peace because of you.

I have not looked for my wife yet as l have decided to work on myself first and prioritise the welfare of my kids. I would not know if we have separated or not as she moved out with her clothes, she is now living at her workplace. When the pandemic lockdown is lifted l will go to my in-laws to collect my kids. What will happen from there I don’t know but I can be living today and make changes for the future now.

*Names have been changed to protect clients anonymity and confidentiality

When the bag tears, the shoulders get a rest.

“When we discover we are more than the problems we have been through we are capable of great things.”

Mugumba Mukoki

In the year 2014 I became a victim of Substance Induced Psychosis (2014-2017) and was admitted into Hospital as a  result of failure to repress my sorrows towards staying away from my family, I was living in fear every day and I had lost hope in living for another day.

By the end of 2017 after having spent one week in hospital, I met Professor Dixon Chibanda and Hopewell Chin’ono as they were shooting a documentary on mental health issues in Zimbabwe. My mother volunteered for this documentary on my behalf and that was the turning point for me. Meeting Prof. Chibanda opened a window of opportunities for me, the kind that I had never thought would be possible. 

Upon recovering from the shackles of my mental health condition, I was introduced to the Youth Friendship Bench and this is where I found my safe space, I found belonging and connection with people who understood. It has given me purpose, I realised I needed to use what I had gone through to try and prevent others getting to the point of hospital admittance because of psychotic episodes. The community engagements that I have taken part in so far has given me some insight into how as people we are affected by circumstances beyond our control and the impact that these issues have on our state of mind. Getting to share my story and hearing the stories of other youths during  our Circle Kubatana Tose peer support groups has given me great joy. Having learnt that the stories we share could help change someone’s life for the better, I will continue to share mine for as long as I can.

All in all, being part of the Youth friendship bench has been a life changing experience. I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of mental health awareness and how dialogue can go a long way in addressing the problems we face as youth in Zimbabwe.

Find out more about the #StateOfMind documentary spoken of above. To share your story takes courage, Mugumba Mukoki is courage in body, mind and soul.


Written & lived by Thembile Gola

When we’re born we bring so much joy, happiness, excitement to the people around us, a heart-warming time, untouched by life, pure and innocent. Then life starts to happen, and quickly. I can remember being in sixth grade and not understanding why I felt like crying. Is it normal to cry? Do people cry?  What will they think of me crying? Why can’t I stop this? I also did not understand why I felt warm and fuzzy and smiled uncontrollably sometimes but other times I was down and not an ice-cream or call from a friend could bring back that smile. Being an African child, I don’t remember talking about feelings at home, or hearing that my birth brough people joy, I only know that now because I’ve seen it in others.

Nobody talked about the ups and downs of emotions. Nobody warned me that it happens. Nobody told me that all of it is temporary and that it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be ecstatic but know it won’t last forever so I shouldn’t try cling to it. Nobody told me that I’m not odd for having salty water coming from my eyes. Nobody said that all of this happens and it is just what makes us human. According to me, emotions did not exist outside of what I saw on television. As cliché as it sounds, this was a real thing. Thembi had no clue.

Fast forward to Uni, a quick summary; ‘the worst period of my life’, the end. Everything around me was toxic and I was okay with it. Not because I wanted to be but because I did not see the need to choose or feel that I needed something better for myself. I was drowning in destructive emotions and unhealthy situations. I knew that I was unhappy, but again what did happiness look like? What exactly am I choosing happiness over? I was just moving with life, wasn’t I? It took breaking down to my knees, and more unexplainable tears, to know that I was dying inside, slowly and surely. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The words were almost cliché for me as I was once again conducting my own funeral with my pillow bearing witness in attendance. Tears! Again! Why are you here! And then they’re just gone. Just like that. Like it never happened?

I almost felt mad at myself every time I broke down like that. Why did I do it? Did it help? “You’re too sensitive for nothing,” I castigated myself. Like I said, as a typical African child, we did not discuss emotions in our household. Silence, brush offs, minimization is the recurring trend. I did not know, that for me, this silence was pushing me towards the edge. The balloon popped from nowhere and for a period I could not recognize myself. Confused by my own feelings and emotions, literally because I knew no better.

In my own searching silence, I finally got the resolve to do better by myself, motivated by hunger for change; simple put, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired . My google search history was automated at this point by phrases like “signs of depression,” “what is an emotional breakdown,” “unhappiness”. That’s when I noticed in all my reading that I wasn’t the only one that felt feelings so intense and unexplainable that they could eat a person alive inside. People do cry sometimes, and it’s okay; this was mind boggling for me, it was okay to cry and not know what to feel!

I did not know that the next and only other time I would share this experience was in the same Uni that constituted the worst period of my life, on World Mental Health Day as a representative of the Friendship Bench; yes, it does sounds like another cliché. Professor Dixon Chibanda, persuasive as he is, squeezed it out of me; Thembi, stand as keynote speaker, with a speech, read it in public, in a place with a history of struggle. What a nerve wracking experience, to say the least! However, it was a beautiful speech, and it was clearly meant to be part of my path to heal the past. Lecturers that never looked my way shook my hand on that day, happiness was the feeling, happiness was warm, and vulnerability was not something to fear.

Emotions are a natural part of our biology. The brain has a specific section dedicated to the triggering and regulation of our emotions. It really is natural. I know that now! The problem is that there is not enough conversation about it especially within the family context. As we grow we need guidance in knowing the difference between emotions and healthy and unhealthy expression of emotions, as well as the consequences of trying to silence them and stuff them down. Ignoring the topic does not mean it does not exist. As peers we need to constantly check on each other, educate each other on the different things we face. There’s nothing worse than feeling alone.

We live in a very informative time. The advent of technology has made information available everywhere, almost at an overload if we aren’t careful. So ask Dr Google, check sites with credibility and read a few, don’t cherry pick what suits you, note the overview and patterns that emerge. And if you are looking for help know that reading alone won’t get you help but with some action you will heal where you need to heal.

Knowledge is power; another cliché but it’s true. It saved me.

Another thing to note is that the clichés are true, you may have gathered that by now. Sometimes it actually is just that simple!

(Twitter: @phenomenalladyT ; Instagram: @thembie_r )

Thembi is now a trained Friendship Bench peer counsellor, if you can relate to what she has spoken of here, know you aren’t alone and reach out for help.



When a teenage girl wears black and veils her pain with sardonic smiles and sarcastic tone of “hi, ya I’m great you know, never been better”.. one has to know that all is not well. If you haven’t picked up on the sarcasm or inconsistent body language it could prove to be a complicated back tracking session. First impressions matter and we go nowhere without building a level of rapport, a time to show we have heard the undertones without being accusatory about it.

Monica* seemed to be fighting more than one battle… her inner struggles and the one that comes with seeking help; opening up to someone and being vulnerable, talking about deep struggles, to who, for what, what if they go talk about me afterwards, what if when I open up I lose my power, I become broken and open and empty and can’t pull myself together, what if…

“I heard you offer counselling? I don’t need it but I came here for the experience and to get my friend off my back.” Monica was resolute, and if you did not look into her eyes you would think all was well, she was together on the outside, well presented, exuding confidence and determination, not a stammer or self-conscious tone in her voice.

There was however an internal conflict happening; I’m here- but I don’t need to be here- but my friend thinks I should- I’m strong- I need my friend to leave me alone so I’ll do this to please her… It’s complex, there’s a lot of voices that come behind someone’s wall, understandably so.

“I know I have issues but nobody is perfect. You also have your share of bad days. You tell me some of your issues then I’ll know you are for real.”

It took awhile but Monica opened up, inside her wall, so delicately and intricately build was oblivion, a deep dark empty hole; she called it a gomba.

“People know me for being intelligent, argumentative, introverted, classy, beautiful and bold, I have this facade to keep up, I can’t imagine if people knew the truth… I have to be this ‘Monica’ to hide all the rest I have such shame over, the real Monica underneath it all. No one knows my father is verbally abusive, or that my first and only boyfriend raped me, or that my family is struggling financially. When I look around me all I find is a judgmental friend, an abusive father, a weak mother and a pervert boyfriend. I have so much rage in me and I find I love it, I love lashing out at people, it makes me feel in control, it lets them know I am independent and need no one.

During our sessions on the Friendship Bench Monica realised she could have a power and strength different from the rage that would be explosive, coming out uncontrolled and misdirected.

Monica began to talk about her father, seeing that he wasn’t entirely abusive, she connected the financial struggle with his moody outbursts, she laughed and said maybe she got if from him. One of Monica’s goals was to work on her relationship with him, to try talk more and express how his language affects her. Her weak mother was to be a strong woman of her own right, it occured to Monica that sometimes it takes more to keep quiet rather than engage in an argument in which there will be no winner. Her boyfriend of many years was to be confronted for the crime he committed, their relationship was not fulfilling, the baggage of the past wasn’t what Monica wanted, she had had enough of her gomba.

* Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Loneliness, A Bodily Function

A perspective.

Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual, if you feel lonely you are lonely. Whether you are a shy person, an extrovert, single, or in a relationship we can all feel lonely. Money, fame, power, beauty, social skills, a great personality, nothing can protect us against loneliness because it’s in our biology.

Loneliness is a bodily function like hunger; just how hunger makes us pay attention to our physical needs, loneliness makes us pay attention to our social needs. Millions of years ago our survival depended on being part of a group, forming relationships and collaborating with others to achieve goals such as hunting for food and gathering fire wood to keep warm, this is when it became part of our biology.

Our body cares about our social needs because it wants to avoid social pain, this is the pain that comes from feelings of isolation, rejection or abandonment. Pain of this kind is an early warning system to get us to focus on our social needs.

As the world has developed, populations have grown, small towns have become large cities we more and more have lost touch with human connections and close relationships. Large numbers of people have had to migrate for work and school, migration has broken families apart, we sit behind phone screens showing people what we feel will impress them so we get enough likes to build our self-esteem to enable us to feel socially accepted, we escape reality by getting lost in cyber worlds playing games with people we have never met. As the world’s population grows there has become more competition for jobs and school places, this means longer working hours as people try to stay ahead of the game so to speak, but in the process become isolated from the world outside of the formal institution where we are playing roles, conforming to titles and carrying out duties prescribed to us.

For some people, the more time we spend on our own the harder it becomes to go out and connect with others, we find ourselves feeling anxious and would rather avoid those feelings, so begins a vicious self-sustaining cycle. The effects of social pain (loneliness) can develop into actual physical symptoms, such as headaches and sore stomachs which re-enforce our need to stay home or away from people. This can lead us to become more self-centred as we try protect ourselves from the physical pains. People may begin to interpret this as being unfriendly, cold or arrogant and so they start staying away from us which furthers our sense of  loneliness and gives us evidence that we aren’t liked and don’t belong, so our self-esteem drops and we develop more defence mechanisms and coping strategies (such as drug and alcohol use).

Long-term loneliness can put us at risk of physical conditions such as heart attacks, stroke and high blood pressure but importantly it can also be the trigger or result in mental health problems.

How loneliness can show its presence

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but long periods of loneliness or social isolation can have a negative impact on our physical, mental and social health. Some signs include:

  • Physical symptoms – aches and pains, headaches, illness or worsening of already existing medical conditions
  • Negative feelings – feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or thoughts about suicide
  • Mental health risk – increased risk of depression, anxiety, panic attacks
  • Low energy – tiredness or lack of motivation
  • Sleep problems – difficulty getting to sleep, waking frequently or sleeping too much
  • Eating problems – loss of appetite, increased appetite, sudden weight gain or loss
  • Substance use – Increased consumption of alcohol, smoking, medication or drug use

Is loneliness a mental health problem?

Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chance of feeling lonely, and long term feelings of loneliness can increases your risk of developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

What to do

Some people experience deep and constant feelings of loneliness that come from within and do not disappear, regardless of their social situation or how many friends they have. We are living in the most connected time in human history and yet great numbers of us feel isolated. Here are a few things to go through if you are struggling with loneliness;

1. Recognise that you feel lonely but know you are not alone in the experience. Know that loneliness is a feeling, don’t confuse it with thinking you are an outcast or unwanted or a loser.   

2. Get curious. Ask yourself questions. Is it situational loneliness or chronic loneliness? Have you intentionally or accidentally isolated yourself? Write down your self-deflating thoughts when it comes to loneliness. What are your loneliness habits? Do you really want to change or is loneliness serving a purpose in your life at the moment?

3. Stop comparing yourself with others or looking at others and wanting them to fix your feelings.

4. Look at the connections you already have, what is right in-front of you? Ideally, look up from your phone or computer screen.

5. Look for a volunteer programme and spend time giving back to the community.

6. Be persistent in your efforts, whether it is joining a group or seeing a friend once a week, it may seem uncomfortable and exhausting at first but don’t give in. Challenge the assumptions and feelings that tell you to give up and resign yourself to a life of loneliness, show up, be curious, have no expectations and keep asking yourself questions about the experiences you have.   

7. See loneliness as a message from your body, it’s not intentionally trying to hurt you, it’s trying to motivate you to take a step towards connecting with others and building of friendships.

8. Talk about it. Find a mental health care service, like the Friendship Bench, or someone you feel you can trust and won’t judge you or minimise your feelings. Loneliness can sometimes come with feelings of shame and embarrassment, the more we start to talk about these feelings and why we feel them the less they control us.