Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost every country all over the world has taken certain measures in an attempt to contain the spread. Measures like social distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation are deployed everywhere. People are also being encouraged not to step outside their homes if not absolutely necessary. While these measures can be and probably are being effective in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19, social isolation has many negative impacts on mental health and can result in depression, anxiety, and dementia, to name a few.
For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging people to maintain socializing using phones or other online media. But these media and social networking platforms can never replace the joy, the reward that in-person conversations give us.
Researches too have confirmed the fact that social isolation has a significant negative impact on mental health. And some researchers even go the extent of saying feelings of social isolation might beat the root of every mental illness.
But feelings of being socially isolated are nothing new. And now with the COVID-19 pandemic and its regulations, the number of people feeling socially isolated has been on the rise. According to a study, three in five Americans report feeling lonely, with feelings of being left out or dejected.
This article explores the impact that social isolation has on our mental health and how to deal with it.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
We all know what social isolation and loneliness feel like. We have all felt “alone” at some point in our lives. But not all people perceive and experience feeling “alone” in the same manner. In general, we tend to consider a person socially isolated when he/she lives alone, has less than average monthly contact with friends or family, or do not belong to any group (religious, club, or other).
This isolation can be the choice of a person when he/she chooses to live an isolated life. Or, can be imposed upon him/her as the passing away of loved ones, moving to a new place and thus estranging from friends, or other factors leading to a depletion of social networking and isolation.
But those are just some quantitative measures and we all know from personal experience that the quality of our social interactions and not the quantity determines how connected or isolated we feel. So, social scientists studying isolation, apart from these quantitative measures based on the number and frequency of social contacts, have tried to define social isolation qualitatively as well.
Research by Cornwell and Waite (2009) has tried to define social isolation both objectively and subjectively. They have used terms like “social disconnectedness” and “perceived isolation” to describe isolation in its objective and subjective perspective. While a lack of contact with others describes social disconnectedness, perceived isolation is based on the experience of a person; how lonely (lack of companionship and support) he/she feels.
In this context, we would tend to think that social disconnectedness without perceived isolation would be less stressful and thus have less impact on our health. In other words, we think feeling lonely would be far worse than being alone. But studies do not always support this assumption. Social disconnectedness with or without perceived isolation can increase the mortality risk of a person to the same extent as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure.
Isolation and Mental Health
Human beings are social animals and it has been like this from the dawn of our civilization. Human beings have always relied on collaboration and cooperation, be it to hunt and gather food, in pre-historic civilizations or in more modern societies, to feel a sense of belongingness. In short, our biological, psychological, and social systems evolved to perform best in a collaborative network of people. And when this network somehow gets thin and people have less or no contact with others, all types of psycho-physiological disorders kick in.
Both mental and physical health is affected by social connections or a lack of it. Many countries are even treating loneliness as a health priority nowadays. So, if you are sitting on a couch and watching Netflix for hours without connecting to anyone, it’s time you do so. According to WHO, social networking and support have a significant positive effect on human health and the lack of it can cause severe health issues including:
- Suicidal tendencies
- Alzheimer’s disease
The effects of isolation and loneliness are not confined to these mental conditions. Researches show that isolation can also lead to serious physical ailments like heart disease and breast cancer.
Who are at Risk
As the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, people are instructed to be indoors and maintain isolation to help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. While this is an effective method in containing the spread, people are becoming increasingly socially isolated and the risks associated with it as discussed above are becoming more prominent.
Experts suggest that the number of people feeling lonely is on the rise in the US. Similar is the situation with other nations as well. Nations including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany say that they are facing a loneliness pandemic.
While all people are equally subjected to this isolation in place, some are more likely to feel the consequences. Older adults among others are especially likely to feel lonely. This is because older people often go through life-changing phases like retirement, children leaving home, widowhood, and these changes often break social ties and make it more difficult to form new connections and socialize. People with age-related health conditions and/or disabilities can also find socializing outside their homes difficult.
Some other factors also contribute to people feeling lonely. Societal trends have changed over the years and more couples are deciding not to have children. The average size of a household has also decreased leading to people having lesser human connections.
Lifestyle factors also decide who will feel lonely. People who have got divorced, living alone, or single are likely to experience more loneliness.
So, we see that older individuals and people already experiencing loneliness are more prone to feel lonely due to the regulations put forward. And thus these people are exposed to a greater threat of developing mental and physical conditions due to social isolation.
Symptoms to Look Out For
Luckily, mental health issues generally show early symptoms that help them to be diagnosed and cured. If you or some closed ones are feeling lonely and are in the early stages of developing a mental illness, they will generally show certain symptoms including:
- Feelings of depression
- Aggressive behavior
- Poor sleep quality
- A lack of appetite or an increased appetite
- Cognitive decline
- Passive attitude
- Poor self-hygiene
If someone is showing these symptoms then beware. It might be that they are developing a serious mental condition. Do not neglect and seek help immediately from a certified medical professional.
How to Battle the Effects of Social Isolation?
As we have seen, social isolation with or without feelings of loneliness can lead to serious physical and mental disorders. However, some methods can prove to be beneficial in battling the effects of isolation on humans.
One of the easiest ways of combating the effects that social isolation has on us is to exercise. Exercises and its positive effects on both physical and mental health have been studied and established. From experience too, we can say that after having a quality workout session we feel refreshed and rewarded. This is due to the secretion of certain hormones like dopamine among others that gives us this wonderful and rewarding feeling. So, perform some simple exercises regularly and that will help in combating the stress that develops due to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Keep Yourself Engaged
Keeping yourself engaged is another way to fight loneliness. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop and this is quite rightly said. From our experience, we know that sitting idly doing nothing constructive can not only be boring but when followed for a long period can also bring on feelings of loneliness. So, actively engage in whatever activities you can lay your hands upon. While activities cannot replace the reward that social interactions give us, it can however be a help in battling the negative effects of social isolation on our body and mind.
So, apart from doing household chores, you can also enroll yourself in some online or distance learning courses. This will not only help in combating isolation and loneliness but also provide you with knowledge and skills that can prove helpful in the workplace.
The majority of schools and colleges have already adopted online education as a mode of teaching due to this COVID-19 pandemic. And you too can opt for it for enhancing your skills and keeping yourself engaged and thus keeping negative thoughts at bay.
Keep Socializing Using Other Media
Nothing can replace human interactions and their positive effects on us. So, while being stuck at home due to this pandemic and with no social in-person interactions, it’s best to try out other media to keep on interacting. Media like phone and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others can help in making interactions with friends and family. So, use these platforms to the best of your interest and socialize.
You can also strike up a conversation with an old friend or extended family members using these social media channels. What’s important is that you do not lose all contacts and stop interacting completely. Use your phone or other media as mentioned to keep connecting.
COVID-19 is showing far-reaching consequences. Due to this pandemic, and due to the restrictions imposed, social in-person interactions have fallen in every country and every society. The situation is almost forcing us to stay isolated in our homes. While social isolation is helping in preventing the spread, the health risks associated with isolation are increasing among individuals.
However, there are ways in which we can combat these feelings of isolation and loneliness as mentioned in this article. So, follow them and if you or any other are showing early symptoms of mental illness, see a doctor immediately.
But mostly, it would be beneficial to accept the changing times and adapt to it. Keep safe, keep healthy.