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Don’t let someone’s social media follower count fool you.
Just because someone seems to have ample friends doesn’t mean they never feel isolated.
Anyone can experience social isolation, even if they have meaningful relationships. Pre-pandemic, nearly 40% of Americans reported being lonely. Lonelier employees reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job.
Of course, during the pandemic, we saw a spike in social isolation. Even while COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, we still saw social isolation and loneliness on the rise.
While it’s always existed, even more people are affected by public health measures or mental health problems.
What is social isolation?
For many, spending time alone is a good thing. Some people enjoy periods with fewer social interactions so they can focus on their thoughts, relax, and recharge.
But those who are truly socially isolated don’t have friends or loved ones around them. They have few social connections and don’t interact with others very often. Social isolation can last for a few months or several years.
Ultimately, social isolation has two major causes: the first is physical limitations from socializing, like adjusting to the new normal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The second is internal limitations, like mental health issues or social anxiety.
While it can happen to people of any age, older people tend to suffer more from social isolation. Research from the CDC has shown that older adults struggle with staying connected with others due to dementia and other memory loss conditions, difficulties moving around, and poor vision.
What is the difference between social isolation and loneliness?
When we discuss dealing with social isolation, we often bring up loneliness.
Those struggling with loneliness feel disconnected from those around them and lack people to confide in and feel comfortable with.
On the other hand, social isolation happens when people have few, if not any, social contacts. Even if they wanted to engage in social relationships, they may not have the opportunities.
You can resolve feelings of loneliness by calling up a friend and meeting them for coffee, but with social isolation might persist beyond one positive interaction. People struggle to remedy their situation because they don’t have enough people to call on.
The good news is that neither lasts forever. Combating loneliness or preventing social isolation is always much possible.
4 causes of social isolation
People experience social isolation for various reasons. An important thing to note is that someone could live by themselves but not experience social isolation or loneliness while a person could have five roommates and still feel lonely.
What impacts you might impact someone else differently, so remember that everyone is dealing with something different.
Here are four potential risk factors for social isolation:
1. Mental health issues
People who have low self-esteem or lack confidence because of depression may feel like interacting with others isn’t a good idea and isolate themselves or avoid forming or maintaining social relationships.
2. Public health measures because of the coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced measures to keep people apart, like social distancing or restricting the number of people allowed to gather.
Public health authorities have introduced these guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, but it’s also caused further isolation.
And while the restrictions are lessening, we still see remnants of the pandemic impacting the way we work, interact, and socialize.
3. Geography and local environment
In a densely populated city, social interactions are more common each day. But those who live in more remote areas or have relocated farther away from their friends and family are more likely to experience isolation.
Bloomberg found that 82% of urban centers in America had more people moving out of them than in during the beginning of the pandemic, and for suburban areas, 91% of counties experienced more people moving into them than out.
Although Bloomberg’s study showed that most Americans relocated within a 100 to 150-mile radius of where they came from, moving to a new area that people aren’t familiar with can still feel isolating.
It still means having to make new friends and adjusting to a new way of life. Going from a busy, bustling city to a more quiet suburban area can make people feel isolated.
4. Loss or disconnection of loved ones
Losing the people we love has a profound impact on us.
The grieving process that we go through can cause us to isolate ourselves from others and the world.
We grow reluctant to form new social relationships because we miss those we’ve lost. Sometimes when we disconnect after a romantic or friendship break-up, we feel vulnerable and don’t want to feel hurt again, so we shelter ourselves from social interactions.
5 consequences of social isolation
While you can recover from social isolation, some of the consequences severely impact your health. Take a read through these five consequences that can come from social isolation:
- Emotional pain weakens our immune system and mental health
- Higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Substance abuse and addiction issues
- Poor physical health, including heart disease and higher blood pressure
- Poor sleeping habits
How can you prevent social isolation?
No matter how frightening the consequences may seem, we can practice avoiding situations that might lead people to experience social isolation. Here are six tips to help overcome and prevent social isolation for everyone:
- Make time to practice self-care and do things that give you a sense of purpose outside of work
- Become involved with social activities, like a book club or sports team
- Plan ahead when you’re going to spend time with friends and family members so that you have something to look forward to
- Adopt a pet to keep you company
- Volunteer your time helping others
- Make the most out of phone calls and video chat platforms like FaceTime
- Join a support group or seek professional help from a therapist
How has COVID-19 changed the scenario?
It’s hard to talk about social isolation and not bring up the pandemic. The social distancing measures put in place to separate those infected have brought many social relationships to a halt, or at least limited them heavily.
The guidelines that public health authorities introduced aim to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but they often leave people wondering what to do when they feel isolated.
These measures have impacted virtually all environments. For example, they’ve caused people to work remotely, limiting potential social interactions one would have at the office or while commuting.
Other environments that are typically a place for people to gather, like churches, schools, community centers, and other recreational activities, have changed, too.
Start making social connections
Social isolation seems like a problem you have to face by yourself, but that’s not the case.
Speaking up for yourself and talking with others about your feelings of isolation help those around you know that you need help. And there’s never anything wrong with asking for help.
Taking the initiative to ask for help can be the first step to empowering yourself to break away from your isolation.
Also, did you ever consider that making an effort to have more social relationships can help others, too? You never know who might need a friend a reminder that they aren’t alone either.
Beginning to acknowledge that you aren’t the only one who feels isolated can help you realize that you’re not alone.
By putting in the sustained effort to become more social, you’re paving the way for a future where you live with more purpose, clarity, and passion.
Get someone who will support you as you work to better your well-being. With BetterUp, you can be paired one-on-one with a virtual coach.
A coach can provide the guidance you need to stay focused on developing skills that strengthen your mental fitness and show you how to take care of your well-being.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.