How Social Isolation and Loneliness can Impact your Mental Health
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
The idea that people are becoming increasingly isolated and lonely isn’t new. It’s a topic that is well-known and widely discussed, but the interesting thing about this phenomenon is that many of us know this fact to be true, but somehow, we aren’t really in any hurry to do something about it.
People often blame advances in technology for our increased isolation, particularly the Internet and social media. There are also far more work-at-home jobs that can explain isolation, as well as smart phone apps that can deliver goods and services right to our doors—without the requirement of even opening the front door if you don’t want to. People can essentially live mostly solitary lives if they wish to and still have most, if not all, of their needs met.
Most people also know how social isolation and loneliness affects mental health and emotional wellbeing. It’s possible that the consequences—like depression, social anxiety, stress, and burnout—are ignored because the impact will not hit you immediately. In fact, it could take months or years of social isolation and loneliness before you experience the dark side of staying away from others and cooping yourself up for too long.
You might go about your daily routine and fast-paced life without giving much thought to the fact that maybe you haven’t taken a walk outside for a while. It’s possible that it’s been weeks (or longer) since you’ve gotten together (in person) with family or friends or taken the step to socialize and meet new people. We transition in and out of the 9 to 5 work routine and tend to other daily responsibilities and these activities and tasks can distract us from really seeing the extent of our own solidarity. Maybe it’s only when you’re feeling particularly stressed out or you’re experiencing some sort of problem that you realize that you need support. This is actually a normal, human instinct—to seek out social support in times of need. It increases our chances for survival because ultimately, human beings have historically always needed each other.
It might not be a coincidence that mental health disorders, including suicide rates, continue to increase as we become more technologically advanced. Many experts, as well as the general public, acknowledge that this is highly related to our social isolation. It’s important to note that sadly, those who commit suicide are sometimes socially isolated, but this is not the case with all suicides. However, it is likely that loneliness does play a role. This means that it is not superficial social contact, but social support and meaningful connections with others that is important in preventing emotional concerns. But, even before mental health issues escalate to the point of self-harm, there are many warning signs that can certainly be triggered by social isolation and loneliness. Depression, anxiety, high levels of subjective stress, and burnout are the primary issues that can stem from being too comfortable with being alone. An interesting experience that many people describe after being isolated for long periods is becoming socially anxious or, interestingly, socially awkward when they do interact socially again. Mysteriously, this can happen to people who never struggled with any type of social anxiety before. It can be simply due to a lack of practice with being around others. Who knew that social contact is a use it or lose it type of skill.
So, is there a solution for our isolative ways or are we all doomed to be a product of the way society has turned more seclusive? We already know that people are well-aware of their lack of social contact and they know it’s not good for them. It seems that the real issue lies in doing something about it—taking action to change habits and implementing some discipline into our daily lives so that we make it a point to keep up meaningful social contact. Below are a few effective strategies.
Volunteer. This serves a dual purpose because you are not only helping yourself, but you’re doing something positive for those in need and for your community. Everyone has at least 1 hour per week to dedicate to volunteering. Find a location nearby that’s convenient and accessible and give your time to people who need it the most. The elderly, the handicapped, and the homeless are examples of groups that can really use volunteers. Research has found that volunteering serves to prevent depression and I’m sure you can name many reasons why.
Decrease screen time. For most people, it’s safe to say that your social isolation occurs not simply because you’re working all the time and much too busy. The reality is that many people who isolate do so because they opt to stay indoors, fixated in front of screens—smart phones, tablets, computers, TVs—we have more options than ever. Track your screen time and work on decreasing it. Imagine all the free time you’ll have to do things that are healthier and that will get you off the couch and out the door
Mark your calendars. Since the days can roll by while you’re consumed with work and other responsibilities, it might be helpful to write a big letter ‘S’ on your planner on those days when you make some type of valuable social contact. This includes visiting relatives, going out with friends, taking a walk in your local mall, sitting at your favorite coffee shop, attending a religious service or event, or even standing outside your front door and chatting with your neighbor. All of these activities count towards removing yourself from your isolation and reminding yourself that the outside world still exists.