Mental Health

What is Social Isolation and the Damaging Effects on Your Mental Wellness

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

Mother Teresa

There are qualities present in our genetics that have allowed our species not only to survive; but to thrive. One of those evolutionary musts is social support. Social support is how people support one another, both physically and emotionally.

And those who develop supportive relationships in their lives experience better health and wellness both emotionally and physically. Being on an island onto oneself is not the way that humans were built to exist. But even with the introduction of social media and ways that people can connect via communication, the problem of isolation and loneliness persists.

According to reporting by a 2018 national survey conducted by Cigna (1), levels of social isolation and loneliness have reached a pinnacle with nearly twenty-thousand adults in the US self-reporting that they either sometimes or always feel lonely and alone.

And forty percent of those surveyed reported that the relationships they do have are not meaningful, leading them to feel socially isolated and lonely. The prolonged stress resulting from social isolation can lead not only to problems in childhood and adolescence, but they carry well into adulthood. According to the study:

  • 47% did not believe they had meaningful social interactions daily
  • 27% felt that they did not have people in their lives who understood them
  • 43% felt that they found themselves often feeling isolated from others

What is Social Isolation?

Social isolation involves solitude environments that are devoid of social relationships, whether it is forced upon someone or chosen. A person might experience social isolation if they:

  • Spend long periods alone
  • Avoid being in social situations due to a mental condition or disorder
  • Experience fears of abandonment or social anxiety in social interactions
  • Have very superficial or limited social interaction
  • Lack of social relationships
  • Develop severe loneliness and distress

Not having people to support you through the rigors of life, or even to relish in your achievements, can have a profound effect on your health. Social isolation, or living without close relationships, can have adverse effects regardless of what age you are, what your background is, or what your social-economic status might be.

We are social creatures by nature. And research shows that being alone for just a few hours can lead to things like anxiety, a distorted sense of time, and even hallucinations for some. 

Are we Becoming Increasingly Isolated?

Depressed senior man alone sitting on bed edge with dozens of pill container at his feet

One case study of inmates (2) who were confined to solitary conditions experienced a breakdown of their cognitive sensibilities, which is just one of the hundreds of studies done. But why is it that we are so dependent on one another for our health and happiness?

And have we always been lonely as a society, or is it a new and increasing phenomenon. Because people are more openly talking about mental health issues, is it that we are becoming more keenly aware of the human condition of loneliness and able to discuss it? Or, is there globally something changing that is increasing the incidents of those who report feeling isolated?

The US census data (3) recently found that over a quarter of the US population is living alone, which is the highest percentage ever recorded. And more than 50% of the American population is unmarried, and marriage is only on the decline along with the number of children being born per household following suit.

Once more, an increasingly large amount of adults are no longer practicing their religious faith or even declare one. So not only are we separating ourselves from other people, we are disengaging from believing in a higher power that universally combines us all. 

 Physiological Causes of Social Isolation

If a person is not exposed to the proper amount of social interaction, it can lead to social isolation, depression, and feelings of loneliness. And loneliness leads to an increased amount of perceived stress. For evolutionary reasons, the function of the “fight or flight” response is the protection of the individual from the situation they might find themselves in.

When a person experiences prolonged isolation, it negates the body’s need for social interaction. And that can lead to the brain perceiving the situation as threatening, therefore, engaging the flight or fight response. 

During the flight or fight response, the brain releases hormones that seek to protect the individual from danger. These hormones signal the body to either eave the situation or to prepare to defend itself.

But the hormones released are supposed to work only short-term. If that response is chronic, then studies show it can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, infection, elevated blood pressure, mortality, and cognitive decline.

Loneliness, Isolation, and Solitude – What is the Difference?

“Loneliness is never more cruel than when it is felt in lose propinquity with someone who has ceased to communicate.”

Germaine Greer

Although similar, the terms loneliness, isolation, and solitude are distinctly different

  • Loneliness involves a desire for social contact, and it is linked to feelings of emptiness and sadness
  • Isolation is the lack of emotional support or social relationships
  • Solitude is the physical state of being alone

Solitude is not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when people need to be on their own to reflect. And every person is different when it comes to the need to retreat from social situations and recoup. Introverts, for example, thrive best in situations that are not continually surrounded by social interaction. Whereas extroverts feel more of a desire to interact.

Social interaction can be Experienced Both Physically and Emotionally

Being isolated is not just a physical thing. Many of us experience loneliness day to day with people surrounding us at work and in our daily routine. Things like having a small social network, living alone, and not participating in the community around you, can all lead to feelings of isolation. And although it is a significant issue with the elderly, feeling isolated can happen to anyone, at any time.

Most importantly, social isolation is not purely the physical act of being by yourself. It is a feeling that is created in the brain, and then you seek to put a reason to those feelings. It is the brain giving you false information, and you choose to rationalize the chemical trigger.

What are the Dangers of Isolation?

Studies show that being isolated can lead to a severe decline in physical health. Many studies (4) have concluded that feeling isolated can increase the risk of death by more than 50%. In some instances, it can increase your risk by as much as 90%, depending on the severity of isolation and experience.

Being socially isolated can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, increase your blood pressure, lead to an overactive immune response, and make you more susceptible to infection. One study concluded (5) that the effects of social isolation are two times more harmful to you both physically and mentally than obesity.

The physical risks of social isolation include:

  • Higher levels of inflammation in the body and chronic release of stress hormones
  • A higher risk of coronary heart disease
  • An increased risk of developing a disability
  • A higher risk of Type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses
  • An increased risk of premature death by as much as 30%

Feelings of social isolation can also have a disastrous effect on your overall mental and emotional wellbeing. People who suffer from social isolation are more prone to:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Neuroticism
  • The onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Post Traumatic Stress
  • Low-self Esteem

And on a day to day basis, it can lead to sleep disturbances, the loss of focus and attention, and difficulties with verbal and logical reasoning. It can also lead to having a difficult time making decisions, recall, and the ability to store memories.

Brain Development and Social Isolation

Hand shows the brain in the sun and sky.

Children who are deprived of social interaction have an increased risk of substantial health problems in adulthood. Studies conclude that if a child is socially isolated, it can lead to structural brain development issues. A specific study done on monkeys who were socially isolated for weeks showed that it affected their overall cognitive development.

Researchers found that they had a significant deficit in the communications chains within the brain called the oligodendrocytes. The monkeys had neuron-to-neuron impairment in the prefrontal cortex that limited their ability to interact on a social level. The prefrontal cortex is also the part of the brain that is responsible for higher cognitive functioning like planning and higher-level thought processing. 

Children Growing up in Social Isolation

The way that we learn social interaction is through trial and error growing up. Therefore, creating social ties is essential to a child’s wellbeing. It isn’t just about developing friends, social interaction is the way that children learn to adhere to social norms.

And it is also a significant portion of their social and mental development. When children are not allowed to interact with others, for various reasons, they miss that key component to learning about how to navigate not just social situations, but life as a whole. 

Research indicates that there are many ways that social isolation affects children. The consequences of social isolation can result in poor educational attainment, lower socioeconomic standing as an adult, and they are more likely to experience a mental disorder in adulthood. 

Social Media and Social Isolation

Intuitively, it would make sense that social media brings the world together through social platforms where people can interact at any time. But research would suggest that the opposite is true.

One study, in 2017 (6), revealed that adults ages 17-32, who used social media regularly, reported more feelings of social isolation. Those who used it most were three times more likely to experience adverse social effects than those who did not. But although there is a correlation, that does not mean that social media causes social isolation.

It might be that those who turn to social media looking for interaction most have a predisposition for feelings of loneliness and depression, not the other way around.

Touch Starved – Yes, it is a Real Thing

Humans were evolutionarily wired to need physical touch, or we can not survive. “Skin hunger” or “touch starved” can result from having no personal touch sensations with other living things. Not having human touch can also have an adverse effect on you. And it isn’t just about romantic or sexual contact; something as simple as a hug, touching someone’s hand, or even rubbing shoulders with others is critical for your wellbeing.

Scientists have identified something called C-tactile afferents that alert when you have any form of living touch. When you are touched, it releases a hormone called oxytocin, which is also known as a “love hormone”.

When you are stressed, the body releases hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. And when they become chronic, it can lead to disease and illness. Touch initiates the reduction of those hormones, which helps the immune system to work the way that it was designed to. Touching stimulates the transport signals that connect the brain to the body.

Touch is also important because the release of oxytocin stimulates serotonin and dopamine, which are hormones that are responsible for feeling good. So being physically by yourself without enough direct actual touch stimulation can lead you to the risk factors for disease as social isolation.

Ways to Overcome Social Isolation

The good news is that each new day provides someone who is feeling isolated and lonely the opportunity to make social ties and to overcome those feelings. There are healthy ways to overcome feelings of isolation. And although they might take a little bit of thought and mindfulness, if you take small steps every day, the path to being a social being will, over time, become quite natural.

Tips to Overcoming Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation

Group of happy friends drinking coffee and cappuccino at vintage bar outdoor - Young millennials people doing breakfast together - Friendship, youth and food concept - Focus on afro girl face

Realize that the loneliness is not a Fact, it is a Feeling

When you begin to feel lonely, recognize that something in your brain has been triggered to make you feel that way, not because you are actually alone or isolated. Your brain is designed to be aware of the danger, and being alone can be scary. So the brain’s function is to pay attention to when you might be vulnerable and act on it.

When you begin to feel lonely, the rational part of your brain searches for reasons why you think as you do like, “Does no one like me? Is it because I am unlovable? Have I done something to make everyone go away?” In essence, your brain confuses fact with feeling, and then it becomes a more significant issue. So when you have feelings of loneliness, remember it isn’t real; it is your mind, so do not accept it as reality.

Reach Out to Those Around you

When you feel lonely, your natural reaction might be to feel bad and retreat from people in your life. When you feel lonely, instead of accepting the pretense that you aren’t liked or that you are a loser, reach out to people. Pick up the phone to connect with those you love. They will surely convince you that your feelings are just that, feelings, not fact.

Be Aware of Your Self-Defeating Thoughts 

There is an inner voice that tells us things about ourselves, and, unfortunately, that self-talk is usually your worst critic and presents the worst-case scenario. Our brains work to make sense of the feelings that we experience, not the other way around. So stop listening to the scenarios that your brain is making about why you have feelings of loneliness and evaluate what is really going on in your life.

Take Actionable Steps to Fight Emotional and Mental Habits That Lead to Feelings of Loneliness

When you understand that your loneliness stems from established emotional habits, it becomes much easier to deal with your feelings. Regular and healthy social engagement with friends and family is good. Contact people in your life when you are feeling isolated or alone. Even if it doesn’t feel like it is the time to connect, it is precisely the time. FaceTime or give someone a call to catch up, it will remind you that you are not really alone.

Find Someone Who Can Relate

Although the phrase is, “misery loves company, “in reality, it is people who think alike gain benefit from being with other people that they understand and who understands them. Find people with whom you have something in common, whether it is that you both need a sidekick or someone you enjoy doing a specific thing, like hiking. Making a strong connection with people you feel at ease with is essential to feel a part of something.

Don’t Back Out

You don’t have to be the most social being the world, but if you tell someone you are going to meet them for lunch, meet them for lunch. Even if you have to give yourself a little bit of a push, don’t push things off when you make plans. If you do, you might end up regretting it or worrying about it later. The more you avoid social interaction, the harder it will be to get back out there.

Join a Club or Volunteer

Being a part of something is a great way to feel like you belong. If there is something you are passionate about or a hobby that you really like, find a club. If a club isn’t where your interest lies, try volunteering. You would be amazed at how quickly you can go from lonely to lucky when you see the misfortunes of others.

According to most recent scientific accounts, social isolation and loneliness are on the rise. It might be that new mediums to communicate like social media are to blame. Or, it might just be that talking about loneliness and depression in the open is becoming more acceptable.

For whatever reason, however, millions of Americans are feeling as if they are alone. If you are feeling socially isolated, try to remember that it is your brain tricking you for evolutionary reasons. And if you ignore those triggers that push you to come to false conclusions about why you feel lonely, you can overcome them.

At Chat Owl, we understand that it is difficult sometimes to put yourself out there and to stop allowing the inner voice that is telling you to retreat to take hold. Our mission is to get you back out there, amongst people, and stop the adverse effects that social isolation can have on you both mentally and physically. Contact one of our counselors today to discuss and talk through your feelings.