Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

We Are Not Made for Social Isolation

Hugs and face-to-face chats may not be possible for the foreseeable future. But there are other ways to keep loneliness at bay.

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readApr 2, 2020

HHuman beings are social creatures. Our societies and institutions are largely organized around social interaction, and we’re one of the few — if not the only — species on the planet whose members are willing to make personal sacrifices for unrelated strangers. It says something that even in our prisons, solitary confinement is viewed as an exceptional level of punishment.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its social-distancing imperatives are forcing humans across the U.S. and the globe to spend more time alone or in small, static groups than at any point in modern history. And while this pandemic is new, the harms of social isolation and the loneliness that accompanies it are well established.

A study published this year in The Lancet found that social disconnectedness — defined as a scarcity of contact with others — led to feelings of isolation, which in turn promoted feelings of depression and anxiety. “The need for social connectedness is a deeply ingrained human characteristic,” the study authors wrote. Isolation, they went on to say, was firmly associated with declines in mood and cognitive function, poor sleep, and rising stress and body weight. Maybe most relevant to the current Covid-19 situation, isolation has also been linked to reduced immune functioning, they wrote.

“Your mind does not have shelter in place restrictions.”

The health impacts of loneliness

“People are social organisms, and millions of years of evolution have wired us not to be isolated or on our own,” says Roger McIntyre, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He says that isolation often leads to loneliness, which studies have linked to an increased risk for heart disease, obesity, depression, and suicide. “In some cases, the risks associated with loneliness exceed the risks of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” he says.

McIntyre is quick to point out that, while sometimes used interchangeably, social isolation…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.

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