June 25, 2020 By our very nature humans are programed to live in groups of other humans. Whether you typically reside with a related or non-related family, a group of friends or a larger community, social interaction provides numerous physical and psychological benefits that most of us cannot tolerate being separated from. The pandemic and the requirement of social distancing can be a great method to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but is also causing significant stress and complications in a world that has been increasing self-isolating for the last several decades.
In an article entitled, How Social Isolation is Killing Us, published in 2016 by the New York Times, long before the current pandemic, reported that social self-isolation of all age groups had doubled, from 20% to 40% since 1980. The explosion of the internet offerings, such as home schooling, working at home, and the fake friendships of social media have been major contributors to this phenomenon. As reported often during the current pandemic, social isolation has had the most severe effects on the elderly. Not only are those over 65 yrs. old the most at risk for COVID-19, they generally also had the fewest social connections prior to self-isolation. By cutting this group off, almost completely from family and the outside world, the physical and mental health consequences have been severe.
About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health, especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression, are also more likely to feel lonely. The New York Times article noted, Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Loneliness accelerates cognitive decline in older adults. Loneliness in all ages can be a risk factor for early death as also are obesity and smoking.
Things to Overcome Social Isolation(1)
With regard to the challenges posed by social distancing, express gratitude to someone through an email or letter. Check in with others who might be scared or lonely. Restart a family tradition that’s long been forgotten, like game night. As you find new ways to connect, no matter what you decide to do, listen to others with compassion. Look to the Bible – New or Old Testament, the Koran, the Hindu ancient script, the book that guides your faith. The one common factor through all is ‘it is in giving that we receive’ – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Reaching out to others serves to benefit you and those you connect to.
Nature: Take a walk in a place that makes you feel humble and open. Look at pictures of awe-inspiring landscapes or star systems that help you see a bigger picture of the world or universe.
Spiritual/religious practice: Meditate. Pray. Read from spiritual texts. Participate safely in rituals that give you a sense of community and purpose.
Art/music: View great works of art. Listen to music that inspires you. Allow yourself to explore other genres/images that lift you up.
Avoid types of connectedness that are a negative force. Negative social media can be destructive and increase unhealthy stress hormones and anxiety. Multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts. Social media may promote negative experiences such as: Inadequacy about your life or appearance.
No matter the coping mechanism, long-term isolation comes at a cost. If you need a healthcare or mental health specialist it does not mean you are failing but rather recognizing that professional help can be a better option than prolonged suffering. I encourage you seek help and recognize you are not alone during this crisis.