The pandemic has led many people to isolate themselves to protect their own physical health or that of loved ones. But, this social isolation can take a toll on mental health. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2018, one in ten Americans felt isolated or lonely the majority of the time. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation were common problems before the lockdowns began, and they are not going anywhere.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
While loneliness and isolation are typically linked, they are slightly different. Social isolation is the objective lack of relationships or reduced frequency of social contact. Loneliness is the subjective feeling of isolation. It is possible to isolate and not feel lonely or feel incredibly lonely while being surrounded by people. You can also become emotionally isolated and unwilling to share your feelings with others. You can feel detached or emotionally numb if you miss emotional support or interactions. The following are signs that you might be experiencing unhealthy social isolation:
- Distress during periods of solitude
- Dreading social activities
- A sense of panic or anxiety when thinking about social interactions
- Frequently canceling plans and feeling relief afterward
- Avoiding once enjoyable social interactions
- Minimal contact with others or spending large amounts of time alone
Who is Most Likely to Experience Social Isolation?
Social isolation and loneliness occur among people of nearly every demographic. However, it is more common in older adults, marginalized groups, and immigrants. The following situations can also increase your chances of feeling isolated and lonely.
● Losing a Loved One: Isolation after losing a friend or family member is common, especially if you are an older adult. The loss could be from divorce or a location change. A loved one can even be a pet.
● Increased Social Media Usage: Social media has enabled us to stay connected over long distances. However, it can lead to isolation if it replaces meaningful connections and conversations or in-person interactions.
● Moving: If you move to a remote location or are separated geographically from your friends and family, you can start feeling isolated. This is prevalent in jobs where you frequently move, like the military.
● Losing Your Job: If you feel shame from losing your job or being unable to find another can lead to self-isolation.
● Having Physical or Invisible Health Conditions: If your issues limit your mobility, they can reduce your ability to interact socially. You may feel shame or discomfort about your appearance, leading to reduced interactions. If your hearing or vision is impaired, you can feel isolated even when you’re out socially.
If you have a chronic condition, you could be immunocompromised or be in too much pain to leave the house. If your condition is flaring, you may need to use your bathroom or stay close to your medications. You could frequently be in the hospital, contributing to social isolation.
● Going Through Mental Health Issues: Low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression are a few issues that can cause social isolation or result in it. It can become a cycle. Isolating can trigger depression, which may lead to further isolation.
● Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: If you are in an abusive relationship, it is not uncommon to decrease contact with your family, friends, and coworkers to keep them from finding out what is happening.
Effects of Loneliness and Isolation
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled loneliness and isolation as serious public health risks. Research has linked them to reduced cognitive, immune, and cardiovascular function. You are at risk for anxiety, depression, and suicide. In 2015, a meta-analysis by Holt-Lunsad et al. found that social isolation is the same if not more harmful to your physical and mental health than other indicators for mortality, like obesity, physical exercise, and access to healthcare. Furthermore, a lack of social connection increases your health risks to an equivalent level of having alcohol use disorder or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Your physical and mental health are connected. While the links between medical conditions and social isolation are not fully understood, evidence supports the connection. The Journals of Gerontology found that loneliness leads to a 40 percent increased risk of dementia. And the American Journal of Epidemiology linked higher chances of dying early with social isolation.
When To Seek Help
If you have been feeling lonely or isolated and experience any of the following symptoms, you should seek help:
- Social Withdrawal
- Difficulty Coping with Daily Life
- Extreme Mood Swings or Prolonged Feelings of Anger or Fear
- New and Unexplained Physical Problems
- Hallucinations, Delusions, or Confused Thinking
- Large Shifts in Sleeping or Eating Patterns
- Prolonged Depression or Anxiety
- Excessive Substance Use
What Help Looks Like
There isn’t a universal cause for loneliness, so a one-size-fits-all intervention will not work. It’s critical to address your underlying motivation. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been effective because it can empower you to deal with your negative thoughts and learn practical ways to stop those thinking patterns. Engaging in community and social groups can positively affect your mental health and reduce your feelings of loneliness.
If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, a clinical depression treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation can help. It’s an FDA-approved, insurance-covered, quick, and painless treatment for your symptoms. It isn’t systemic like medication, so there are minimal side effects. Many people have experienced a reduction in their symptoms through treatments at TMS treatment centers in North Gate. Check with your mental health team to see if you are a candidate.
It is imperative to speak to your doctor if you have been struggling with loneliness or isolation, as prolonged social isolation can worsen existing mental health challenges or lead to their development. Depression and anxiety are among the top mental health problems arising from this mass isolation, and they can feed off each other.