Adverse health consequences of Isolation and Loneliness

Isolation is the “silent killer” affecting an estimated 8 million elders in the U.S., but it is an epidemic that often goes unnoticed and untreated.

On average, 40% of seniors are impacted by the isolation that comes with living alone and the resulting feelings of loneliness, increasing their risk for depression, dementia, and premature death.

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What is isolation?

Isolation is the experience of being separated or cut off from other people. It is usually felt when an indi­vidual has minimal human contact, but it can also occur within an emotionally unsatisfying personal relationship. A few people may choose to be isolated and enjoy their solitude, but the situation is often regarded as unwelcome.

Nearly everyone experi­ences feelings of isolation at some time in their lives, if only for a short while. For example, when start­ing a new job or beginning at college, loneliness is common until new networks and friendships are made. Like the elderly and young moth­ers with pre-school children, some people may be at risk of prolonged spells of isola­tion in their own homes.

Isolation is often accom­panied by loneliness. People need relationships with family and friends to maintain a sense of self-esteem. 

Such networks provide warmth and support and provide shared interests and concerns. Without these relationships, loneliness may follow, with a result­ing loss of self-confidence and perhaps even the onset of depression.

Are loneliness and social isolation linked?

Loneliness and social isolation are different but related concepts. While loneliness can be closely related to social isolation in many people’s minds, social isolation can lead to loneliness, and loneliness can lead to social isolation. Both may also occur at the same time.

People can experience different levels of social isolation  and loneliness over their lifetime, moving in and out of these states as their circumstances change.

Loneliness and social isolation also share many factors that increase the likelihood of people experiencing each, such as deteriorating health and sensory and mobility impairments.

Loneliness and social isolation during the COVID-19 Period?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and social isolation were prevalent across Europe, the USA, and China. The situation has only worsened with the restrictions imposed to contain the viral spread.

However, there is a high cost associated with the essential quarantine and social distancing interventions for COVID-19, especially in older adults, who have experienced an acute, severe sense of social isolation and loneliness with potentially severe mental and physical health consequences.

The effects of loneliness

Everyone at one point or another experiences' loneliness, and like all feelings, its causes are unnumbered. You could spiral into a vortex of loneliness from anything: stress, loss of a loved one, a tragic event, or feeling isolated from friends and family. 

Feeling alone doesn’t equate to loneliness. It’s important to understand that distinction. You should always separate those two states of mind because alone time is a good thing. It’s a great thing.

How does isolation occur?

The anonymity of modern, urban living gives rise to much loneliness, espe­cially where people live in high-rise housing without community facilities. People in rural areas are also prone to isolation, as meeting places are few and public transport is limited. Women seem to be more at risk than men, as they are more likely to be tied to the home, caring for children, with little access to social outlets.

Everyone needs social connections to survive and thrive. But as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Being alone may leave older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can affect their health and well-being. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart diseasedepression, and cognitive decline.  

The loss of meaningful relationships through bereavement, divorce or moving to a different area can lead to severe isolation and loneliness.

People living alone can be vulnerable. Yet, living with others does not offer automatic protection if relationships are stressful or communication with a partner or other family members is difficult.

A 2018 study shows that social isolation is associated with heart disease and can predict premature death. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Dying from a broken heart,” and loneliness is no exception to this trope. One key finding from this study was that in most cases, loneliness negatively affects mental health.

Personality factors are essential

Early child­hood experiences significantly shape our ability to form and main­tain relationships in adult life. From the earliest infancy, a child learns, both consciously and uncon­sciously, how to interact with other people.

Development of self-esteem and appropriate trust in others needs to be encouraged. If these are impaired, shyness and wariness in making friends may result. Valu­able social skills are also learnt in childhood, and people lacking basic social manners may well tend to become isolated.

How can isolation be overcome?

Isolated people can do much to help themselves. Analysing the causes of isolation is a good starting point. Then it becomes possible to explore ways of meeting people. This might involve joining a club or taking up a new interest that involves a shared activity but is currently challenging at this particular time with social distancing interventions in place. 

Spend more time with your family

Before the pandemic, some family members may have been distracted by work and school commitments, but now they may have more time at home and a higher degree of freedom to connect with older loved ones.

Social connections with technology

Along with the telephone, technology has changed the way people interact with each other. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Skype, Twitter, LINE, and Instagram enable people to stay connected in various ways.

However, many older adults may not be as familiar with these new technologies, and this style of interaction may not effectively serve their emotional needs. We can help more senior family members and friends to overcome such technology barriers. Online video chat is easier to use and sufficiently conveys non-verbal cues so that people can feel more engaged.

A longitudinal study showed that those with higher quality or more face-to-face or remote methods of communication (phone/video) contact had fewer depressive symptoms in all age groups during the lockdown.

There is evidence that more vibrant social relationships are beneficial for mental health.

Consider Pet Adoption 

Studies support the idea that getting a pet is a good thing. From reduced cholesterol to increased outdoor time, furry friends are a bonus in life.

One study found that petting a dog or cat for just 10 minutes leads to lower levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Not only do animals alleviate stress, but they also give you something to rely on and trust—just as that animal will depend on you. 

Plus, it’s a great distraction. It takes a lot of work and effort to train a pet, so you’ll have your hands full if you decide to adopt a little critter. Many people have turned to shelters to adopt or foster animals since the pandemic began, and why they can be good for your health.

For the following reasons:

1. They offer companionship.

2. They are instilling a routine. 

For Example, during the pandemic, many people have found their social lives curtailed and their day-to-day lives completely upended. Some were barely leaving the house. Having a pet to care for gives owners a reason to get out of bed each day.

Feeding, walking and playing with the animal provides structure to a day when otherwise, maybe there wouldn’t be anything going on.”

3. It is providing a purpose. 

Beyond just having a daily routine, caring for a pet can give a strong sense of purpose. Pet ownership is an important responsibility and one that can be a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. It can also be a great way to help kids learn about accountability and how to chip in with chores and other tasks.

4. They are offering opportunities for more exercise. 

Dogs need to walk and run regularly. Cats like to play. While it might be challenging to take your goldfish out for a swim, the fact is that sure, pets do provide a reason and a daily requirement to get moving, often outside. Daily walks are a great source of exercise for you and Fido – as well as a way to improve mental health.

5. They are reducing blood pressure. 

“Study after study has shown that having a pet can reduce blood pressure,”. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reports that pet ownership can be a key to reducing stress, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

6. Offering mental stimulation. 

Engaging with an animal can provide a rich source of mental stimulation. Having a pet can also help ward off depression and anxiety.

If pet ownership is not your passion, then local libraries can provide infor­mation on groups and meetings in your area. Simple ways of increas­ing self-confidence can be very effective. For instance, try changing your hair or dress style.

There are also many helpful books on developing self-esteem. Adult learning centres may offer courses in communication and self-assertion skills.

These can bring greater confidence in work and social settings, as well as devel­oping self-awareness.  If it comes to your notice that a neighbour or a colleague also appears to be isolated, getting to know them should help both of you.

When should I see my doctor?

If you feel that isolation is making you miss out on life, socially or profession­ally, it may be advisable to seek help. Seeing your doctor would be an excellent first step to take.

What will the doctor do?


The doctor will take a history and discuss how you are feeling. Depend­ing on the assessment, you may be referred to either a Psychologist:

This is a specialist in behaviour and mental processes, which may offer you social skills training programme, developing the ability to initiate conversation, understand body language, and so on. 

Relaxation techniques may sometimes be added to reduce the anxiety felt in social situations

Counsellor or a psycho­therapist: One of these practitioners may help you examine the under­lying reasons for your loneliness or isolation. This may involve explor­ing childhood experiences.

Is isolation dangerous?

A short period of isolation may be beneficial for some people and maybe valu­able in teaching how to cope with isolation when it arises unavoidably. However, continued isola­tion tends to restrict an individual’s development and make fulfilling communication with others painfully complicated.

Isolation can be hazardous when associ­ated with severe depression, leading to suicidal thoughts. It does not usually reach this stage for most individuals, as the problem is recognised early and positive ways of overcom­ing it is then explored with a therapist.

How to deal with loneliness

At this point, you know the difference between loneliness and being alone. You’ve learned the benefits of having alone time, so hopefully, you’re more eager to fit in some self-care time for yourself now and then. You also understand the effects of loneliness, which is why you’re probably hoping for some insight on how to actually deal with it to overcome it eventually. 

Dealing with loneliness begins with you. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised to know how many people turn to external factors to cope with their feelings. Living in the digital world isn’t always easy because we’ve become so addicted to the opinions of others.

Whether it’s a scroll on social media or waiting around for a text message, these behaviours reinforce the idea that people depend on their screens for affirmation. Here’s the thing: Your feelings are real; your digital objects are not. Key in on your experiences and try to cut through the noise of technology—especially when you’re working through something like loneliness.

Stress

Many psychological experiences, occur in the mind, are often internalized in the body. Loneliness and inflammation are perfect examples of this. This goes back to Darwinism—it’s all about survival. In primordial times, our bodies were wired to think of loneliness as a threat. 

A common thread between loneliness and physical effects is stress. Anxiety is the root of most of these physical afflictions, and a person’s socialisation patterns effortlessly sway it. 

A study by Psychology Today  tells us that stress is more common in those who limit their social interaction. In other words, the less you interact with people, the more you may feel stressed in other aspects of your life.

Alcoholism

It would be best if you never got to a point where pouring a few extra glasses is the solution to your problems. It feels like a simple solution, but it is more destructive than it is helpful. Now, it’s one thing to treat yourself to a glass of wine or maybe your favourite beer, but you shouldn’t be drinking to make yourself feel better.

More than 27 million individuals suffer from alcoholism, and because of alcohol’s addictive properties, it’s something that everyone should be cautious about. The stakes are even higher if you’re already in a precarious emotional state, so be in tune with yourself and know when enough is enough.

Physical effects

It can influence your eating habits 

Weight loss and weight gain are two ways that loneliness could control your body. Does loneliness correlate to an instant change in your weight? According to a 2012 research study, loneliness can relate to a change in eating patterns or even an eating disorder. It seems counterintuitive that a feeling could result in two opposing effects: losing weight or gaining weight.

But it’s all because it depends on your body. Everyone’s body is different, so the way you internalise is unique to you. If your feelings manifest in stress, you may be more likely to experience weight loss as a result.

Weight loss is sometimes associated with an increase in anxiety. The more you stress, the less you eat, and the more your body burns calories because it’s so consumed with being stressed out all the time. 

On the other hand, loneliness sometimes results in weight gain when eating becomes a vice and a binge-driven hobby. If you’re feeling sad or isolated, a pint of ice cream may feel like an instant remedy. This becomes a self-propelling cycle because you’ll convince yourself that eating makes you feel better and relieves the painful feelings you are experiencing.

Mental health charities said the pandemic, and lockdowns, in particular, had a devastating impact on vulnerable young people, increasing their anxiety and isolation. This has lead to a 50% increase in people developing eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, during 2021.

psycho-social benefit

Have you ever heard of self-actualization? You may recognise the word from a psychology class, but it’s essential to know the story behind this concept. It’s a big part of  "ME" time, so let’s dive into the explanation and benefits of self-actualising.

In the mid-1900s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow created a pyramid that displays the hierarchy of human needs.

As you can probably guess, the most basic level covers all survival needs: food, water, shelter, etc. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, which is a need that many people don’t get to fulfil in their lifetimes. Self-actualisation is the ability to reach your fullest potential of fulfilment, meaning, and purpose.

It means understanding yourself on an emotionally deep level and being happy with whom you have become and who you continuously aim to be. So, what does that have to do with alone time? Well, it takes time to get to know yourself, and a lot of that time comes from being alone.

When you’re spending time by yourself, view it as an uninterrupted time to get to know yourself better and to set goals for yourself. Social time, while fun, can be distracting, and it creates influences on you and your behaviour.

When you get some time alone, you don’t have to worry about pleasing others or being judged by others—instead, it’s just you. With all of this in mind, you can view alone time as one step closer toward self-actualization.

Wouldn’t it be great to get to that point? 

Embrace the Alone Time

Perhaps you’re not feeling up to spending time with others right now, or maybe you have spent time with friends and family, but the lonely feeling is persisting. If either of these is the case, you may want to consider embracing the alone time.

It’s not a simple task, and it will take time and patience to get to a point where you are honestly content with your alone time and all the feelings that come along with it. Throughout the process, it’s important to remember that it does come from within. You should always be working toward this sense of satisfaction with yourself, but don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes you some time.

How do you embrace alone time?

First, you see it as an opportunity. Try to rid your mind of the hesitation and fully embrace alone time as a chance to get to know yourself, work on yourself, and eventually get where you want to be. Some things take time in life, and this process will undoubtedly be no exception to the rules.

As you spend more and more time with yourself, you’re able to eliminate the noise that comes from society and its restraints. You won’t be thinking as much about what people will think of you or how you should impress others. Instead, you’re only considering yourself. This isn’t something you’ll always be able to have. Make the most of it because a large part of your life will be spent surrounded by people. 

What can be done to fight loneliness?

Dealing with loneliness and fighting loneliness are two entirely different things. When you deal with it, you acknowledge that it is present, and you accept it. You adapt accordingly, and you learn ways to work through the phase of being lonely, knowing that it isn’t a permanent feeling but also allowing yourself to feel it. 

Fighting loneliness, on the other hand, is actively working against becoming lonely. The aforementioned is proactive and preventative. If you spot signs of becoming lonely, you use these tactics to stop the feelings before taking over you.

Get busy!

It may seem like an avoidance tactic, but it’s not. Occupying your mind with activities is a tried-and-true way to ward off any impending feelings of isolation. It’s a healthy distraction to stay busy with wholesome and exciting events, interests, or activities.

Fill up your social calendar.

We’ve discussed the importance of embracing alone time, and that’s incredibly important. Nothing stops you from reaching out to people when you begin to feel like you’ve had enough solo time. When you’re actively working against becoming lonely, this is a great place to start.

Reflect on the last wave of loneliness

You came, you saw, you conquered. You’re already experienced with these feelings, which is precisely why you’re trying to prevent them from resurfacing. Why not reflect on the last wave of loneliness you experienced? 

Think about what you did well to overcome the negativity, and think about what you learned you could do better. Take some time to show yourself some compassion.

Be positive in your self-talk

To avoid the “Eeyore syndrome,” it’s encouraged that you speak positively to yourself and about yourself. In the face of loneliness, you may be inclined to revert to self-deprecation, but you mustn’t be hard on yourself. It takes time to build up your self-esteem. Perhaps you want to post words of (Positive affirmations) encouragement on your bathroom mirror. 

Remember: These tips on fighting loneliness are helpful, but the best thing you can do for your psyche is to embrace what you’re feeling and learn how to work through any difficulties in a positive, healthy manner. It’s normal for this feeling to come and go sporadically. It’s recommended that you cultivate a blending of your approach—by simultaneously dealing with loneliness and preventing those feelings from returning.

Most humans feel loneliness at some point, but for some reason, we feel like we’re the only ones experiencing it. It’s possible to disrupt the stigma of loneliness, which can be done by adjusting your mindset.

You can train your mind to counter the harmful effects of loneliness with the positives by embracing your alone time as a period of self-actualisation and independence.

If you’re ever feeling so lonely that you feel significantly isolated or maybe even depressed, you should reach out for professional medical help. That’s what the professionals are there for! 

There is nothing to be ashamed about when asking for help; in fact, it’s an act of bravery and a hallmark of self-respect.

Nothing shouts, “I respect myself” more than listening to what you need and being kind to your mind, body, and soul.

Tony

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