The COVID-19 pandemic prompted physical distancing that influenced further research into the effect of social isolation on humans. However, social isolation and its problems were widespread even before the pandemic.
A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that one in ten Americans felt isolated and lonely most of the time. Socially isolated people lack friends and, as a result, are left feeling depressed and lonely.
While everyone is at risk of being negatively influenced by social isolation, older adults are at an increased risk because they likely must face more factors such as illness, loss of friends, and living alone. According to a paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), social isolation is linked with an increased vulnerability to several mental health issues such as dementia and depression. NASEM also found that more than 1/3 of adults above the age of 45 feel lonely and are considered socially isolated.
The following signs are pointers to the fact that you’re socially isolated:
- Avoiding social interactions
- Frequently canceling plans with friends
- Feeling relief when plans with friends are canceled
- Experiencing panic when considering social interactions
- Feeling distressed when alone
- A deep fear or dread of social activities
Recent studies have found strong evidence linking people who are socially isolated with bad physical and mental health.
Although it’s tricky to precisely measure social isolation, there is clear evidence that people who are socially isolated leave their mental health more vulnerable to various issues.
Recent research has observed:
- Social isolation poses an increased risk of premature death from various conditions. This risk rivals that of physical inactivity, obesity, and even smoking.
- Socially isolated individuals are at an increased risk – about 50% – of having dementia.
- Social isolation was linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- People with health conditions are at a 50% more risk of death and hospitalization when socially isolated.
A 2015 study that reviewed the effects of social isolation in life co-authored by Hawkley concluded that social isolation could ruin not only our mental and cognitive health but also our physical health too.
In 2019, Kassandra Alcaraz of the American Cancer Society examined data collected from about 600,000 adults and observed that the risk of premature death was increased with social isolation (American Journal of Epidemiology).
Coping With Social Isolation
Social isolation could lead to several adverse long-term effects on our mental health. However, at some point in life, we might be required to handle social isolation. The following steps can be taken to cope better with social isolation:
- Accept your feelings: It’s easy to ignore our feeling, especially when it comes to social isolation, as you do not have someone to talk to. However, acknowledging your feeling is the first step to handling social isolation better.
- Go outdoors: While a stroll in nature isn’t socializing, it’s immensely beneficial to our mental health and physical health. Sunlight has been proven to help boost our moods, and it contains vitamin D, which helps alleviate signs of depression.
- Pursue your hobbies: Adulthood can make us focus on creating a living and forgetting the things we love. When you’re socially isolated, focus on doing the things you genuinely love. It can be an old hobby or pursuing a previously ignored interest. This redirects your mind from being lonely and focuses it on something positive.
- Self-care: The body reacts to social isolation uniquely. It feels stressed, and this causes problems with our muscles, blood pressure, breathing, and more. It’s important to counteract these responses to stress by paying even more attention to self-care. Take warm relaxing baths, meditate, or listen to soothing music. The trick is finding what works for you and sticking to it.