Social isolation has been a public health concern even before the COVID pandemic hit. After lockdowns and recommended periods of isolation to prevent the spread of illness, the concerns of social isolation are now a greater concern worldwide. The concerns with social isolation are many; for example, it can increase the risk for premature death from all causes and increase risk for cognitive decline.
Increasing awareness of social isolation and prevention is more important now than ever before. Stay on top of wellbeing by knowing the signs and risks of social isolation and depression.
What Is Social Isolation?
Social isolation is essentially an emotional and physical state in which an individual loses communication with others, mostly sparking feelings of loneliness, depression, and other negative emotions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines loneliness as the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. Social isolation is a lack of social connections.
Social isolation can lead to loneliness, but one can also feel lonely without being socially isolated. Social isolation has been on the rise due to forced limited interaction with others from COVID-19.
Health Risks of Isolation and Depression
Loneliness increases the likelihood of cognitive decline, depression, hypertension, and even mortality. In fact, research shows lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity! Loneliness has also shown to be an independent risk factor for sensory loss, connective tissue, and autoimmune disorders.
According to research presented at an American Psychological Association conference, loneliness is deadlier than obesity. The data revealed lonely people had a 50 percent increased risk of death compared to individuals with positive social connections. Comparatively, obesity raised mortality risk by only 30 percent, before the age of 70.
Social Isolation and Mental Health
Loneliness is common in the elderly, which has been shown to increase the risk for depression and suicide. It has been well-documented that long periods of isolation have detrimental effects on mental well-being.
For example, there is evidence social isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, and insomnia in certain populations and contributed to fatigue and decreased performance in some healthcare workers.
Ways to Prevent Isolation
With evidence social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of premature mortality and cognitive decline, there is an emerging need to bring public awareness to this new "loneliness epidemic". As health experts strategize and implement techniques to detour loneliness and mortality risk, the following are important to recognize and implement ways to prevent isolation.
Turn Loneliness to Solitude
Loneliness is associated with negative health effects and feelings of despair and sometimes fear. An important mental shift from feeling lonely is to turn to solitude instead. Solitude occurs when social interactions are limited, but it brings about feelings of peace and tranquility instead of despair.
How can one feel solitude? Spend time meditating, reading, praying, or engaging in other relaxation techniques.
Prioritize Engaging with Others
Even if one cannot meet with people face-to-face, keep connections alive by calling, texting, video conferencing, etc. with those holding utmost importance. Set aside time every day or week to engage with friends or family. Research has shown that weekly telephonic sessions with loved ones can help reduce anxiety at the time of pandemics.
Social networks and connections are important to prioritize even if connecting with others may look different than before.
Find Ways to Help Others
Taking the focus off oneself and towards others may help with negative feelings of isolation and loneliness. Find ways to help, volunteer, show thankfulness, or encourage others such as healthcare workers, public servants, vendors, security personnel, etc. Reach out to neighbors, friends, and family to help run any errands or do other tasks for them.
Even a simple exchange of greetings with neighbors or strangers can give a feeling that 'we are all in this together'. It may seem small, but these simple steps can help enforce one is never and need not be alone.
Flourish in Purpose
People who feel lonely are likely to have a distorted perception of their self-worth. Individuals can reestablish their sense of purpose by gearing back into or exploring new hobbies and volunteer work and rekindling relationships with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members.
Acquiring and committing to a pet can also reduce feelings of isolation and depression and increase feelings of motivation.
Reach Out for Help
If dealing with loneliness and/or social isolation, reach out to a healthcare team. A doctor can help connect one to other health professionals and community resources for help if needed.
Social isolation and loneliness can bring about feelings of despair, anxiety, and increased risk for mortality, obesity, heart disease, and other negative health conditions. The worldwide pandemic has recently given way to global outbreaks of social isolation. Research is ongoing for all the health implications of social isolation, and prevention of loneliness is key more than ever.
Preventing feelings of social isolation can include focusing on solitude instead of loneliness, maintaining communication with loved ones, focusing on helping others, reaching out for help, and flourishing in a purpose.
Banerjee D, Rai M. Social isolation in Covid-19: The impact of loneliness, SAGE Journals. Published April 29, 2020. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/002076402092226.
Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 4, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html.