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.

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 and loneliness are not the same. What matters is the gap between the social interaction a person wants and what they’re getting, he says. “Loneliness is when there’s a disconnect between a person’s desire to interact with others and the interaction that actually takes place. You can be surrounded by people and still be lonely.”

These distinctions are important at a time when so many people are deprived of face-to-face contact with friends and loved ones.

“Loneliness makes people defensive, irritable, depressed, and worried about their survival, and it’s associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, a loneliness researcher and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Cacioppo says that loneliness may cause or contribute to a range of health problems in part because the human brain regards an absence of social interaction as inherently stressful.

Social cooperation has been so essential to the success of the human species that people today are hardwired to spend time with others, she explains. And some of her research has found that an absence of interpersonal contact activates some of the same brain regions and processes that fire up in response to starvation or the threat of physical harm. Like a carefully calibrated security system, the human brain is designed to monitor for loneliness. “[Loneliness] is a signal that has evolved to protect us,” she says. And once loneliness is detected, its presence triggers the activation of the body’s stress systems, which over time can promote chronic inflammation and all the health problems it fuels — from heart disease to GI dysfunction.

Cacioppo says that, even before Covid-19, loneliness was widespread in the U.S. A 2019 survey from the insurance and health services firm Cigna found that 61% of Americans report being lonely — a seven-percentage-point jump from the previous year. And a 2019 YouGov poll found that 23% of Gen Zers and 29% of millennials feel lonely “always” or “often.” The current crisis is sure to augment those figures.

“We found in Wuhan that the more time people spent on social media, the more they reported stress and anxiety.”

Finding alternative ways to fight loneliness

The obvious antidote to loneliness — spend time with other people — is currently off the table. But Cacioppo says there are other ways to combat loneliness. “Try to have an active life with a purpose,” she says. She recommends making a plan for the coming week that involves exercise and some form of proactive social interaction — phoning a friend or chatting online with a family member.

“Your mind does not have shelter in place restrictions,” she says. “Knowing that you have the capacity to take action will help.”

The University of Toronto’s McIntyre also recommends exercise as a great way to improve mood and counteract the types of stress that loneliness may foster. And, perhaps counterintuitively, he says that avoiding social media may be a good idea. “We found in Wuhan that the more time people spent on social media, the more they reported stress and anxiety,” he says, referring to some of his own research that is currently undergoing peer review before publication.

This makes sense for a few reasons. Social media tends to buzz with the latest news, and near-constant reminders about Covid-19 may exacerbate some of the stress-inducing effects of social isolation. Also, McIntyre says spending time online in “mass social gatherings” composed mostly of strangers or anonymous users is highly correlated with poor mental health outcomes. “We’ve evolved to have safe, familiar, and secure interpersonal connections,” he says. “Many online social relationships are neither safe, secure, or familiar.”

That said, spending time using technology to interact with a friend or family member is a great idea, he says. “Is meeting a friend for a cup of coffee in person somehow different than meeting on FaceTime? At this time, all the evidence is that it’s just as meaningful and impactful.”

Taking up long-planned projects — learning a new language, for example, or finally giving meditation a try — can also imbue life with purpose and pleasure in ways that video games, podcasts, and Netflix binges really can’t.

Finally, taking steps to combat the worry, anxiety, and sadness that loneliness produces should also mitigate its harms. Experts say that cognitive reframing is one popular and evidence-backed technique for regulating negative emotion.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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