The Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness on Mental Health

Dr. Sara Glazer

The Origin of Isolation and Loneliness

When we believe we are connected to and have the support of others - or that physical proximity to those we have a connection with is imminent - we often find ourselves interested in and excited by our environment. Conversely, when we perceive connection to others as unavailable or unattainable, our experience of a new situation and ability to engage with it is often altered - and usually in a negative way.  

Take, as an example, a friend of mine who once told me about getting separated from her four-year-old son in a grocery store. As she relayed the story, I found that I was curious about his emotions in the moments prior to noticing the separation, and how those feelings compared to the panic and sadness he felt when he became aware that he was alone. In other words, when did his excitement for this novel experience change to fear of being alone and isolated? 

According to author Amelia Worsley, over time there has been a shift in the meaning of the term loneliness. In the late 16th century, loneliness was defined by a physical distance from others. At the time, separation from society was dangerous, as it meant relinquishing the protection of community. It is in 1667, within John Milton’s poem, “Paradise Lost,” that we are introduced to a different definition of loneliness. Loneliness is depicted as emotional exposure and vulnerability. Worsley notes that the loneliness that previously related to physical safety now refers to an emotional state or an internal wilderness, which can be triggered by physical isolation. Indeed, solitary confinement is a severe example of this. However, loneliness can also be felt in the company of others, and tends to be impacted by factors within the relationship, as well as precipitating events such as life transitions, grief, and trauma. Therefore, the resolution of loneliness of this type is more complex. 

What is the Effect of Loneliness and Isolation on Our Mental Health?

Loneliness and isolation have been linked with short and long term physical and mental health symptoms, such as:

  • anxiety
  • cognitive decline
  • disruption of sleep
  • depression 
  • loss of focus
  • increased inflammation 
  • lower immune functioning
  • decreased ability to problem solve
  • hallucinations 

During COVID-19, isolating from others has become both standard and essential. What began as preventative has now transitioned to a public safety measure. Many schools, businesses, daycares, and restaurants have closed, or they are functioning in a very limited capacity.  Family members are separated from one another, and life events - both celebratory and grievous - are experienced privately. Even when interacting with others, individuals don masks and gloves while continuing to maintain physical distance from one another. As I pass the college near my home, the once busy and vibrant campus is now desolate and eerily quiet. It is uncomfortable and sad to witness these changes.  

While isolating is currently necessary in reducing the spread of COVID-19, it is an especially unfortunate period to be maintaining distance from one another. It is in times of crisis that we are most in need of human connection. For example, research shows that feeling supported by a partner buffers our response to stress and lessens our perception of pain. Additionally, as we consider gradually reintegrating into society, what about those individuals who are at greater risk and must isolate for a longer period of time? Knowing others are physically meeting and connecting might increase feelings of isolation and despair for those most vulnerable and still in quarantine. Given the circumstances, how do we manage the potential short and long term consequences of loneliness?

Strategies to Help Cope with Isolation 

Social connection can support us in healing from crisis. According to Dr. Jamil Zaki, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, reframing our current behaviors is paramount in responding to this aspect of the pandemic. Dr. Zaki notes that virtual forums, such as FaceTime and Zoom, should be employed for social interactions. He suggests shifting expectations related to these meetings and approaching them in a similar manner to in-person social gatherings. When we hang out, we tend to act silly and do not expect that all conversation will be stimulating. Dr. Zaki describes these newfound virtual ways of socially connecting with others as being essential to staving off the effects of isolation. In fact, he suggests setting aside time to do nothing together. He also suggests choosing shared activities, such as cooking or drawing a similar picture with people to whom you’re virtually connected. 

Deepening our existing connections can also be meaningful. Dr. Zaki notes that we often feel as if we are battling individualized stressors. Recognizing the shared experience of the pandemic can be significant in relating and experiencing closeness with others. It is also important to appreciate that for many low-risk individuals, making the decision to socially isolate is a caring and compassionate action, as it is an act to protect those who are most vulnerable. 

Seeking support from a mental health professional is another useful resource in addressing the feelings that emerge during this time. Therapy can offer support in experiencing, learning, and developing different coping skills; for example, helpful tools may include mindfulness and hypnosis, both of which can be very effective in responding to stress. Additionally, as noted, loneliness is a complex topic and relates to many factors, including a history of trauma and grief; as such, socially isolating might elicit more intense responses for individuals who have undergone other stressful life events. Therefore, getting support in processing these reactions can help significantly. 

Finally, it is important to mention that resilience increases and growth is demonstrated in individuals following a stressful situation. As a clinician, I am always amazed by and continually learning from the strength displayed by clients. Taking the time to nurture our own inner resources and unique strengths can reduce feelings of loneliness and reveal our own coping mechanisms.

Dr. Sara Glazer is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness and hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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