The drive to seek human connection is a powerful one. It’s hardwired into our DNA; from an evolutionary standpoint, people who sought out relationships with others were more likely to make it to adulthood and reproduce. Hunter-gatherer societies in which people cooperated and collaborated with one another thrived. For this reason, the desire to maintain social connections drives behavior on both an individual and a societal level.
In other words, social distancing is precisely what we’re wired to avoid. Generally speaking, during difficult times, a person’s first inclination is to turn to friends and family for emotional support. Amid a global pandemic that has had a profound impact on not only many peoples’ health but also on countless livelihoods, we’re driven to connect with others. Unfortunately, the healthiest and most socially responsible thing we can do is to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Stay-at-home orders have brought an abundance of frustrations to those whose daily routines are disrupted. Many households are trying to find their “new normal” as older members are working from home and younger members are doing schoolwork online.
However, those who live alone—a group that accounts for nearly 30 percent of the population in the United States—have a significantly different social distancing experience. Even those who describe themselves as introverts who are generally happy alone may struggle with loneliness due to social distancing. Working out at the gym, dinner plans with friends, family gatherings, meetings in social or religious organizations, and even lunch breaks with colleagues have been temporarily put on hold. For many, social distancing has resulted in social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
The Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health
Social isolation and loneliness have a profound impact on mental health, particularly when quarantining lasts for more than 10 days. According to a meta-analysis of 70 studies, the lack of social connection is as hazardous to one’s health as having an alcohol use disorder or smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and it’s twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. Chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by nearly 30 percent.
Social isolation doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness. Loneliness generally refers to the gap between a person’s preferred level of social contact and the quality that they seek in relationships versus their actual level of social contact. An individual can be isolated without feeling lonely; on the other hand, an individual can be surrounded by others but feel lonely.
Over time, loneliness takes a significant toll on a person’s physical and mental health and causes issues like:
- Increased stress levels
- Autoimmune disorders
- Heart conditions
- Decreased memory and brain function
- Poor decision-making skills
- Alcohol and substance abuse
Social Isolation and Previously Unknown Problems
Connecting with others is a common coping mechanism for handling stressors, especially in the midst of a crisis. Unfortunately, taking away a coping mechanism without addressing the problem paves the way for simply developing a different way of dealing with negative emotions or experiences. For some, social isolation may bring previously unknown problems to light.
Unsurprisingly, loneliness and addiction often go hand-in-hand. Addictive behaviors are common ways of dealing with feeling loneliness, anxiety, depression or boredom. In a study that weighed the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak on 549 hospital workers in Beijing, research showed that those who were quarantined or worked in a high-risk setting reported higher levels of alcohol abuse three years later than workers with less intense exposure.
Alcohol and illicit drugs are usually the first things that come to mind when thinking of addictions, but the truth is that addiction comes in many forms. For some, food provides comfort and escape and fulfills cravings or compulsions for feelings that arise during social isolation. Those who work from home may fall into a cycle of overworking to the point of exhaustion, finding it difficult to strike a sensible work-life balance. Social media, which can create a false sense of social connection, has become a common escape for many living in isolation. Video games, gambling, and even caffeine are also common addictions that may worsen with isolation.
Social isolation can also cause or worsen mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. This is especially true for those who have experienced past trauma.
“Isolation is so devastating to our own mood because we’re left stuck with our own thoughts,” Emily Roberts, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist, told NBC News. “If you’re struggling with a mental health disease, if you are relying on therapy which requires you getting out of your house, it’s going to be very hard to motivate yourself to get the help you need.”
When Social Isolation Interrupts Treatment Plans
In many parts of the country, mental healthcare professionals are abiding by stay-at-home orders to keep themselves and their clients safe. Unfortunately, this has interrupted treatment plans for many who are addressing mental health problems. Studies show that missed appointments can cause significant setbacks in an individual’s treatment and recovery.
Many mental health professionals are shifting to providing sessions via teleconferencing. While this is generally not as good as in-person visits, especially for initial sessions, and telehealth isn’t accessible to everyone, it may enable some to stay on their treatment path.
Reducing the Psychological Effects of Isolation
While there’s ample evidence of the negative effects that isolation has on mental health, those negative effects can be reduced.
Take Advantage of Technology
Most studies that observe the effects of isolation look at people who are unable to readily communicate with others. Fortunately, thanks to technology, most people who are following stay-at-home orders are still able to talk to friends and family regularly. Phone and video calls enable those living in isolation to continue benefiting from their support system.
Countless studies, including this meta-analysis of 47 trials, have shown that meditation can reduce depression and anxiety. Even just 10 minutes of mindful meditation daily is enough to improve sleep, cope with symptoms associated with mental disorders, reduce psychological difficulties associated with chronic pain, and improve brain function.
Exercise has long been recognized for its ability to reduce stress. Regular aerobic exercises like walking, cycling, running, and swimming reduce adrenaline and cortisol, two of the body’s stress hormones. Exercise also causes the body to produce more endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that reduce pain and improve mood.
Most states permit residents to take a walk outdoors as long as they observe social distancing guidelines. Getting outside for at least 20 minutes per day three days per week, especially into green space, slows activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that is associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. If that’s not an option, then listening to pre-recorded nature sounds has been shown to have a similar effect.
Social Isolation Is Temporary
Social distancing may push us to change our daily routines and develop new ways of staying connected with loved ones, but we can take comfort in the fact that these measures are temporary. Eventually, life as we’ve always known it will resume, and we’ll enjoy gatherings with friends and family, community events, and normal trips to the grocery store. In the meantime, there are several things that individuals can do to protect their mental health and maintain important social connections.