How to cope when you feel you have no-one to relate to

Having a heart or circulatory condition can make you feel isolated – no matter how many people are in your life. Lulu Trask offers tips on how to overcome this.

You might have just returned from hospital, or maybe you’ve been living with a heart condition all your life. You’re surrounded by family, friends and doctors. Yet despite this support network, you still feel alone.

This is a normal reaction to either a newly diagnosed or long-standing health condition, as Julie Barnett, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Bath, explains: “Moving into a state of ill health can be one of the main transitions that puts us in a lonely place. This can be a traumatic event that changes your identity from someone who’s healthy to someone who has a serious condition.”

While these feelings are common, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the number of people in your life, the stigma surrounding loneliness means it can be hard to talk about.

“It is really important to acknowledge the difficulties of talking about loneliness and normalise conversations around it,” says Professor Barnett.

Illustration of person walking in the rain

What causes isolation?

Why might you feel isolated? According to Dr Keming Yang, Associate Professor at Durham University’s Department of Sociology, feeling lonely comes from your perception of your relationship with others.

“If you are different in any way, particularly in a way you might perceive as undesirable, this creates negative emotions.”

This could be because your condition is relatively rare, or perhaps you’re the only member of your family or friendship group who suffers from a heart or circulatory condition. You might feel that others won’t be able to relate to how the condition affects you, for example if you’re struggling with not being able to do activities you did previously.

Even if your condition is fairly common, you might still feel like you can’t share it with others – particularly if you feel different, for example if you’re younger than other people with your condition.

This is something Dr Yang himself has experienced. “I had a heart attack when I was in my 40s,” he remembers. “I was in a hospital waiting room with about six other people, but they were much older than me and I thought, I don’t belong here.”

A heart attack at 27: Neena's story

This is exactly how Neena Chauhan felt when, a month before her 28th birthday, she suffered a heart attack.

Photo of Neena Chauhan

“It was one of those bleak things that just happened,” says Neena, now 34, from Birmingham.

A fitness fanatic, Neena was happy to take part in cardiac rehabilitation at first, but being so much younger didn’t help.

“It just made me feel worse. I felt like I was a freak because people would ask me what I was doing there – they were making it about me, not about why we were all there.”

And while the doctors and their treatments did help her recovery, Neena still felt like the odd one out.

“The advice they’re giving you is meant for people who are 60 or 70 – a younger body is going to be different.” Neena had a great support network, but having not been through what she had, they couldn’t relate.

“If it weren’t for my family and friends, I wouldn’t have been able to get through. But it was frustrating that they didn’t understand, because your whole world’s been turned upside down, and how can you go forward from that?”

In the end, Neena saw a psychiatrist, as she was suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Getting support

The first step is admitting how you’re feeling, but what next? Sometimes the idea of reaching out to others might feel difficult.

“This takes energy – not only physical, but psychological,” says Dr Yang. “And if you’re feeling low, the natural reaction is to keep to yourself.”

Firstly, think about whether there’s anyone you could talk to about your feelings. This may be a family member, close friend, GP or health visitor. Remember that the more you talk about how you’re feeling, the easier it’s likely to get.

You might even find that people can relate to your experiences in ways you hadn’t thought of. The internet is a powerful tool to make connections you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Illustration of person holding out an umbrella over someone

You might not know someone else who’s suffering from your condition, but you could connect with someone in a similar position and share feelings and experiences on a forum, such as the BHF’s HealthUnlocked online community.

Professor Barnett was recently one of the leaders in a project entitled ‘Loneliness in the Digital Age’, and while her research centres on connecting people within an existing community, she points out that digital forums can be a big source of support.

“There’s lots of evidence to suggest that people actually do value the anonymity of online forums – they can disclose quite personal things and find support around a very particular health issue or situation.”

For those who place more value on face-to-face interaction, meetings such as the BHF’s Heart Support Groups offer supportive environments in which to engage with others, whether through cycling and yoga or days out and coffee mornings.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Acknowledging how she felt and getting professional help was a big step forward for Neena. She soon took matters into her own hands.

“I came back from a trip to Marbella with friends and thought, I’m going to take control of this.” She started going to the gym six days a week and, in the evenings, out with her friends.

“Now, I’m like any ordinary girl. I go out with my friends and I’m living a normal life.”

Her advice? “You have to take charge of your life again, otherwise you’re just going to live in fear. Don’t get me wrong, living with heart disease is no walk in the park, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

How you can help yourself and others

You can still feel lonely even when surrounded by people. Consider your relationships in terms of quality, not quantity, and where you’re getting the support you need.

Visit the BHF HealthUnlocked community online, or you can find your local Heart Support Group or by calling 0300 330 3300 (0131 225 6963 in Scotland).

Remember, family and friends can be affected by your condition, and may feel isolated too. Why not speak to them about it or share this article with them as a conversation-starter?

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