Those of us who live alone face some unique challenges when it comes to coping with bad mental health days. We don’t have the option of asking a partner to sort the dishwasher for us, or asking a housemate if they’d mind making us a cuppa. However, there are things we can do to make the bad days a little easier.
Is Living Alone Common?
Living alone isn’t uncommon in the UK, and the number of those living alone is rising. In 2017, around 7.7 million people in the UK lived alone; 16% more than in 1997. However, this increase isn’t seen across all age groups. The number of 25-44-year-olds who live alone actually decreased by 16% between 1997 and 2017. On the other hand, the number of 45-64-year-olds living alone increased by 53%.
Does Living Alone Affect Our Mental Health?
Some of us choose to live alone, others do so due to circumstances beyond our control. The reasons we live alone can affect our likelihood of experiencing different mental health problems.
Overall, those living alone show higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness than couples who live together but don’t have children. However, it’s currently unclear whether this a direct cause of living alone, or a result of factors that lead to us living alone, for example, a relationship breakdown. More research needs to be done to determine any links between poor mental health and living alone.
The Unique Challenges Of Living Alone
Some ‘living alone challenges’ are things we expect. We know that it’s up to us to mow the lawn, for example, and that we have to get up if we want another cup of tea (unless we’re savvy and bring a flask to the sofa).
Other challenges are things that might not occur to us until they happen. For example, when we’re unwell, it’s still up to us to peel ourselves out of bed and hunt out the things we need. If things go wrong, we often have to reach out for support, it isn’t automatically there. Managing bills can be harder because it’s often cheaper to buy things in bulk. Making big decisions can be tough; we might be desperate for someone to bounce ideas off, and quickly develop decision-fatigue. Employing people to fix things in our accommodation can make us feel vulnerable when we’re the only person in the house.
Every single one of these things (and more!) can affect our mental health.
It’s Not All Bad
On the other hand, living alone has its advantages!
If we’re very routine-based, then living alone can really suit us as there’s nobody to interrupt that routine. Those of us who value peace and quiet, and need lots of wind-down time, can find that living alone is our ideal situation. If we like things to remain where we put them, then living with others might not be for us.
There are other advantages, too; we never have to fight over the bathroom, we don’t have to cope with someone else’s mess, we can choose to paint our lounge wall an audacious colour, we get to pick what we eat every night, the list goes on.
Living alone isn’t for everyone, but for some of us, it’s exactly what we need, and it really suits us.
Having An Honest Conversation
When we first start to live alone, it’s worth having an open and honest conversation with those close to us about any early warning signs that our mental health is slipping, and what we’d like them to do if we’re having a bad mental health day.
Early warning signs might include things like isolating ourselves, ignoring people’s calls, giving up on meals and living off cereal, or ditching any attempt at housework. None of these signs should come with any judgement. Sometimes life happens and housework doesn’t. But learning to identify them can be a vital part of managing our mental health.
Our communication could be as simple as texting a sentence or a particular GIF or emoji. We might want our loved ones to respond by coming over and giving us a hug, asking their toddler to chat to us on the phone, or playing a video game with us that evening.
Once a system is set up, it’s far easier to let our loved ones know that we’re having a bad mental health day and to know what we want them to do about it. We don’t have to explain, we don’t have to tell them what will help – they know, because we’ve already discussed it.
Building A Support System
When we live alone, a varied support system can be vital. It can take a little bit more ‘conscious building’ than if we live with family or friends.
We all need emotional support. A friend we can call on a bad day, or a sibling who knows how to make us laugh.
We might need practical support. Friends or family members who know about car mechanics, are good at DIY or have a knack for tracking down honest work (wo)men, can be invaluable. Sometimes it’s also helpful if we have someone who can do things like nip to the chemist and collect a prescription for us.
For many of us, a sense of community can help us feel at home. Our location will affect how we build this community, but a good start is popping a note through our neighbours’ doors, to introduce ourselves.
We might be fiercely independent, socially anxious, or have had our trust broken time after time. Maybe we’ve been forced to leave our entire life behind. Trusting people can be really hard. But none of us can function alone; we need people around us. Slowly piecing together our support system is a vital part of our self-care.
Sometimes stuff goes wrong. We have a mental health crisis. Flu knocks us out, and we struggle to get out of bed. Our mood dips, our energy levels go with it, and doing the dishes becomes too much.
Sitting down and thinking of these different situations that might occur, can help us to pre-problem-solve and plan.
For example, we could keep a few ‘quick meals’ in for nights where the energy and/or motivation to cook has scarpered. Tins of beans, ready meals or even things like pot noodles can all be handy. If cooking is a struggle for us generally, then we could batch-cook to reduce how often we have to do it. Meal planning, and utilising short-cuts like pre-chopped vegetables, or microwave rice can be lifesavers.
Having a few key items on our bedside table can make ‘can’t get out of bed‘ days a little easier. Cereal bars, a bottle of water, chewing gum and wet wipes can all help us to freshen up, and keep our strength up without having to move too far. It might be a good idea to pop a few phone numbers of people we can call there, too. This isn’t only helpful for bad mental health days, but can also be useful if we’re physically unwell.
Shortcuts can allow us to keep going with the basics (like eating) during bad mental health patches. This could include things like using disposable crockery. Having a big water bottle so that we don’t have to keep getting up. Buying more socks so that we don’t have to do the washing so often. Or leaving our favourite snack various places around the house, so it’s ‘there’ when we’re hungry, and we don’t have to remember to grab it from the kitchen. These shortcuts aren’t always the most ethical options, but sometimes we have to do what we have to do to keep ourselves as healthy as possible.
Pre-problem-solving can help us meet our basic needs, and keep things ticking over until we’re well enough to tackle other aspects of life again.
Plan For A Bad Day
Our pre-planning could involve a bad day plan. Something we can whip out and follow when our mood has dropped and we’re struggling.
It could include things like a step-by-step list of our morning and evening routines (these can be tricky to remember when our brain is foggy). A list of things that help, such as changing into clothes or clean pyjamas, dragging ourselves out for a walk around the block, or doing some morning yoga can also help.
When we live alone, we don’t have someone to prompt us or remind us of those things that help. We have to rely on past-us to do so. So having self-care prompts, reminders of the self-soothe strategies that help us, and reminders of those we can call are often really helpful.
Loneliness can be a biggy when we live alone. Though there is a problem with older people experiencing loneliness, statistically, the number of young people experiencing loneliness has overtaken the number of older people who are lonely.
There are things we can do to reduce our likelihood of feeling lonely.
Evening phone calls and/or video calls with friends or family can be great loneliness-busters.
Adopting a pet needs to be done responsibly, and be inline with any rent contracts we’ve signed, but can be great for our mental health.
Radios can create background noise, helping us to feel less isolated. Podcasts and TV shows are good, too. But the benefit of radio is that we can leave it on throughout our living space, removing the deafening silence that sometimes occurs. We can pop one radio in our bedroom and one in our kitchen, for example, and provided they all connect in the same way (eg. DAB), they should be in sync.
Incidental interactions can help us to connect with our local area. For example, if we’re able to, doing our weekly food shop in person instead of online can create numerous incidental interactions; from a chat with a cashier to a quick conversation with a staff member who helps us find a specific product. If we get into a routine and shop at the same time each week, then we’ll often see the same people.
Volunteering or joining local interest groups can get us out of our living space. They can also increase our sense of community.
We don’t have to have loads of friends or go out every night to avoid loneliness. Some of us really value our own (quiet!) space. We might feel we have enough interactions and connections already. Some of us have busy jobs, and like quiet evenings. But if we are feeling lonely, then there are options out there of things we can do to try and reduce that loneliness.
One of the issues with living alone is that bad habits can sneak in. This often includes things like going to bed on time, washing regularly and eating meals at vaguely ‘normal’ times. It’s all too easy to start having lunch at 4pm, going to bed at 3am, and skipping a shower for ‘one more night’.
If this sounds like us, and we’re someone who slips into bad habits a little too easily, then creating a routine can be important.
Having a routine doesn’t mean that we’re trapped, or that we can’t ever be spontaneous. Our routine could be as loose as ‘I’m going to go to bed about half ten (give or take an hour), eat lunch between 12 and 2, and aim to wash my hair twice a week’. Some of us might prefer stricter routines, and that’s okay, too!
Make Some Plans
Waking up to a day of no plans can feel like our worst nightmare. It can leave us feeling untethered, anxious, lost, and lonely. Making plans and/or setting achievable goals each day can help with this.
These plans don’t need to be huge. Our plan could be as simple as ‘I’m going to read my book’. Our goals could include doing a load of washing and mowing the lawn. The key thing, is to have an idea of how we’re going to fill our time. It can stop us from over-thinking, pacing, and generally falling into a hole of directionless anxiety.
Safety When Living Alone
Our sense of safety can affect our mental health, and it’s often something we’re particularly aware of when living alone.
Everyone’s situation is different, so there will be different considerations for each of us. But some of the things that can help are:
- Signing up to bulletins from our local police
- Privatising our social media accounts
- Avoid posting any pictures online that could pinpoint our location. For example a photo of our front door, or of our street taken out of our window
- Ensuring that our door locks are up to standard
- Giving a friend or family member a copy of our door key
- Installing a burglar alarm
- Installing apps on our phone that allow us to immediately report if we’re in danger
- Having a spy-hole in our door, or a video doorbell, so that we can see who’s there before opening the door
- Installing a chain on our front door
- Waiting to post our photos until we’re back from holidays so that people don’t know our home is empty
- If we have something we attend weekly, keeping the exact times off the internet, and posting photos related to it later that evening or on a different day
- Consider what we disclose publicly online. For example, if the local police create a Facebook post about a problem on our street, and we comment to say ‘this was at the top of my street – I had to drive around the other way to get home’, then every person who reads that post will know which street we live on.
- Setting up lights on timers, and asking a neighbour to pop in occasionally, if we go away
Feeling safe is important and there are lots of things we can do to help our sense of safety. If we’re living alone following particularly difficult circumstance, such as violence or abuse, then specialist organisations should have more specific advice on home safety.
A trap that we sometimes fall into when living alone, is living in situations that we wouldn’t deem acceptable for others. Because it’s ‘just us’.
This could include stuff like not putting the heating on, because it’s ‘just us’, living with broken appliances, wanting to decorate, but not feeling able to, and so many other things.
We matter, our needs matter, self-kindness matters, and we deserve to live in safe, comfortable spaces. We deserve to feel warm, fed, and happy. If we can afford it, then buy the fluffy rug. Acquire a tin of paint, and decorate that room. Get a comfortable chair. Fix broken appliances, or where we can’t fix them, replace them.
It’s okay to spend money on ourselves and to do things that make us feel happy and comfortable. In fact, it’s not just okay; it’s a vital part of our self-care.
We Can Make Living Alone ‘Okay’
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.