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But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Many people across the globe experienced social isolation before the era of public health restrictions. The UK even created an entire ministry to address it.
Humans are hard-wired for social connection. We crave nurturing relationships. We thrive when we’re able to share experiences, dreams, and even challenges together. It’s natural to experience mood drops when we find ourselves socially isolated.
And, as we get older, our risk for social isolation grows. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely. On top of that, nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated.
Extroverts, introverts and everyone in between has different tolerances to alone time. Regardless, once anyone passes a certain threshold, being alone too often leads to feelings of social isolation, low self-esteem, and even depression or anxiety.
What is social isolation?
Being alone isn’t inherently bad for you — just ask a parent how nice it is to escape from the kids once in a while. But too much alone time is problematic and isolates you from your loved ones. Over the long term, this can negatively affect your physical and mental health.
There are two types of social isolation. The first occurs when you want to socialize but can’t due to external circumstances, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of this.
You might want to go out for dinner to de-stress with some friends, but you might not have been able due to the health risks, social distancing, and lockdown measures. In some countries, lockdown measures persist as COVID-19 cases rise.
The second type occurs because of internal reasons. It's not that you can’t go out — you just don’t want to. This kind of social withdrawal is often a symptom of underlying mental health issues. For example, you might struggle with social anxiety.
When a friend invites you to a party or get-together at their house, you’re worried about meeting new people. You might not know anyone else other than your friend. And ultimately, the fear of socializing overcomes your desire for social connection. You opt-out.
How does social isolation affect mental health?
Reduced social contact and loneliness have many potential health consequences. They can cause or worsen the following conditions:
- Severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia
- Suicidal ideation
- Cognitive decline
- Alzheimer’s disease
Spending time in isolation can also cause health problems. Scientists found that a lack of social interaction leads to cardiovascular problems like heart disease, increased blood pressure. It’s also associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression and an increased risk of dementia.
What are the risk factors for social isolation?
Here are some scenarios that could force you into bouts of isolation:
- Death of a loved one. It’s normal to want some alone time to grieve your loss. But if you shut people out for too long, this method can do more harm than good.
- Domestic violence. Abusers often force their victims to cut ties with loved ones. This helps hide the truth about their situation and helps the abuser maintain control.
- Social media. Some people spend too much time scrolling through their newsfeeds. It’s possible your social media use is impacting your mental health. When social networks replace face-to-face interactions, you’re at higher risk for social isolation.
- Unemployment. Losing a job can cause feelings of shame, forcing a person to self-isolate. They also miss those team meetings and collaborations that require social interaction. If you’re in this situation, connecting with others might take some extra effort.
- Chronic health conditions and aging. We need our bodies to take us to social events. But, if you have a disability or a condition that keeps you at home, it’s difficult to see people regularly. Older adults might also have reduced cognitive function that keeps them at home.
- Remote work. Working from home can be a blessing, but it also causes some people to feel disconnected from their workplace and colleagues.
In today’s age of remote work, leaders need to be mindful of the effects of social isolation. BetterUp can help you find inspiration to hone your leadership skills, learn how to improve workplace culture, and improve the social well-being of your team.
6 social isolation effects
If you’re worried about your mental health or mental illness, watch out for these symptoms. They could be signs of social isolation.
1. Depression and anxiety
People often experience depression and anxiety because of their isolation — or experience social isolation in depression or anxiety. These are distinct but related conditions. It can be hard to tell which is which, as they share some common traits.
Depressive symptoms include:
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Reduced appetite
- Trouble concentrating and remembering things
- Chronic feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness.
Feelings of anxiety often manifest through these symptoms:
- An overall feeling of restlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Easily fatigued
If you can't make it to a physical appointment, consider contacting telehealth for support.
2. Aggressive behavior
Lonely people often harbor deep frustration, which manifests through aggressive behavior.
They might snap more easily when they disagree with someone or become angry when they feel rejected. Oftentimes, this is because the person is unable to regulate their emotions.
Others might have a muted response to isolation. They become quiet and passive and don’t have the energy to leave their home or reach out to others.
4. Insomnia or light sleep
Even if they feel exhausted, truly lonely people may have trouble sleeping at night.
5. Memory loss
Older people who are isolated have an increased risk of dementia. Caregivers need to be mindful of this, especially as the coronavirus keeps people home.
6. Poor self-care
Socially isolated people are often less inclined to clean their homes. They may also eat poorly, not bathe regularly, and engage in substance use.
6 ways to fight social isolation
Loneliness can be debilitating. But there are small things you can do to pull yourself out of social isolation.
1. Use the 15-minute rule
Spend at least 15 minutes per day talking to a friend or family member. This can be by phone, video chat, gaming, or face-to-face conversation. That small interaction can make a difference in how you feel.
2. Focus on the person you’re talking to
When you are talking to someone, limit your distractions. Avoid scrolling through social media. This will improve the quality of your interaction, which improves your mood.
3. Help people
The science behind doing good tells us that it’s not only good for others, it’s good for you, too. Find ways to be of service. Bring a neighbor some food, or check in on a friend’s mental health.
4. Accept help from others
Life is overwhelming on the best of days, and it’s even worse when you feel alone. Accepting help from others could be the social support you need.
Even the smallest amount of physical activity can boost your mental health — even better if you can do it outside. The world is less isolating when you’re out moving in it.
6. Talk to a professional
There’s no shame in consulting a therapist. If you have intense feelings of loneliness, depression, or anxiety, a mental health expert can help you find your way back out.
Digging yourself out
Socially isolated and depressed people often stay in that depressive state. This isn’t because they’re lazy, but instead because their brain tricked them into thinking it’s not worth it. These social isolation symptoms are normal, and they’re compatible.
We’re here to help you build a mental fitness plan to leave you better equipped to handle life’s highs and lows. And it takes courage to know when you need professional help. If you’re living with depression or experiencing increased symptoms, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.
If you’re ready to start designing your mental fitness plan, BetterUp can help. Our experts will use a human-centered approach to help you overcome life’s many obstacles. Together, we can set you on a path toward growth and healing.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions