LONELINESS AND SOCIAL ISOLATION

By Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

LONELINESS AND SOCIAL ISOLATION

As a species, human beings are socially driven. Unlike the wolverine who has been described as the “ultimate loner,” we were not designed to be loners or isolated from other human beings. For this reason, the pandemic has created a whole new perspective on life. It is because of the pandemic that we are being forced to experience social isolation. In some cases, the social isolation is spurring on a variety of mental and physical health conditions. The most prevalent health condition would be loneliness.

Dr. Lisbeth Nielsen of the National Institute of Aging explains that “social isolation and loneliness do not always go together.” It is not uncommon to associate loneliness and social isolation, but the two concepts are distinctly different. The research of Dr. John T. Cacioppo also of the NIA found that social isolation and loneliness are distinctly different while having similar features. According to Dr. Cacioppo, “Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It’s possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely.”

As a society, we often associate loneliness and social isolation with seniors, the vulnerable, and those with major health concerns. Seldom do we think of a young family living in an urban sprawl or a healthy individual living in the suburbs as being forced to socially isolate. This new age of social isolation has not been brought on by an individual of mature age or financial restraints; rather, it has occurred because of a pandemic that has universally created a mandate for isolation.

In your wildest of imaginations, have you ever envisioned a time that our global community would be mandated to be socially isolated? Isolation brings with it many forms and hardships. The restrictions of social interaction and connection have created a whole new paradigm. The paradigm is not an experiment but rather a medical necessity.

The problem with social isolation is the feelings that develop from it. In some cases, an individual may feel as though they have been abandoned, rejected, or tossed out. Dr. Cacioppo reminds us that “as a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.”

The pandemic has abruptly changed our perspectives and worldview. For many who suffer from loneliness, the feelings and emotions are frequently described as a sensation of emptiness and hollowness.

Loneliness occurs when an individual is isolated from others. Isolation is not always self imposed. It commonly occurs when an individual is incapable of being mobile or self sufficient. The immobility may be related to finances, physical or mental health challenges. In many cases, isolation is composite of an individual’s life.

THE HEALTH RISKS

The health risks associated with social isolation can be detrimental. According to the  Centers for Disease Control, the risks can rival issues such as: smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. The known health risks associated with loneliness are an increased chance of developing dementia and other cognitive impairments; an increased risk of developing heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure; and the risk of developing depression, anxiety and suicidal ideology.

According to the CDC, “loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”

POTENTIAL RISKS

The potential risks of social isolation are multiple. Social isolation can lead to the increase consumption of alcohol and substance abuse. Research has indicated that when an individual is isolated, there is greater potential of being abused. The most vulnerable in our society have a greater chance of being sexually, physically, emotionally, and verbally abused.

SOCIAL ISOLATION

As a species, we are hardwired to be socially minded. Even through the language with which we speak, we have developed expressions related to our social angst (e.g. she broke my heart; he severed my heart strings).

In 2018, Cigna conducted research on more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older. The intent of the research was to examine loneliness in America. The research discovered that a great percentage of Americans were considered lonely. Interestingly enough, the research found that there were no major differences amongst races, but it did find that Generation Z and Millennials tend to have a bleaker outlook and higher loneliness scores than that of previous generations.

There is ample evidence that indicates that loneliness has a dire effect upon the human condition. Social isolation can cause an individual to feel detached, withdrawn and at odds with others. It has been known to have a considerable effect upon one’s appetite; inability to fall sleep or to maintain sleep; weight gain or loss; and many other biopsychosocial issues.

MOVING BEYOND THE PANDEMIC

Moving beyond the pandemic can occur now. You do not have to wait for the pandemic to subside to find relief from your personal anxiety or stress. Please remember that you are not alone on this journey. We have all been forcibly isolated from our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates, colleagues, etc. Yet, we are not entirely isolated. We have many avenues with which to connect with others. You can connect through a video conference, instant messaging, emails, FaceTime, chat forums, texting, a traditional phone call, and even, an old fashion postage mail.

Relieving your personal angst can occur through many avenues including: getting plenty of rest, eating a well-balanced diet, exercise, meditation, breathing, and coping strategies. You might consider taking a virtual course on meditation, breathing and strategies to manage stress and anxiety. Social isolation does not have to lead to loneliness. It is important that you recognize that you have avenues with which to make your personal connections. The most important thing that you can do is to let others know how you are feeling.

References Provided Upon Request

Dr. Asa Don Brown is a prolific author, an engaging speaker, human rights advocate, and clinical psychologist. He serves as first responder in New York and he has held university faculty positions teaching incoming freshmen to those completing their graduate work. www.asadonbrown.com