Health risks of social isolation

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, and with the spectre of a fourth wave and a new variant of the disease facing us, many South Africans are feeling gatvol. With good reason. Because, while social distancing is accepted as crucial to stop the spread of the disease, isolation from loved ones and work colleagues carries its own deadly risk to our health.

Most people enjoy being on their own from time to time – some more than others. Alone time can be relaxing, thought-provoking and rejuvenating. However, continuous, unwanted isolation, that leads to feelings of loneliness and sadness, can put your health at risk.

Health risks of social isolation and loneliness

Isolation and loneliness are associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. They can also affect physical health, e.g. a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as an increased risk of dementia and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, social isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or excessive consumption of alcohol. And twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015).

Says Holt­Lunstad. “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need, crucial to both well-being and survival.”

Limited opportunities for social interaction

Government Covid-19 restrictions have shut down or limited attendance at venues where people gather – workplaces, churches, schools, restaurants and sporting events. Many people continue to work from home, leading to a massive reduction in opportunities for social interaction. Individuals may also choose to self-isolate if they feel embarrassed about losing their job or business, or being unable to secure new employment.

Long term effects of social isolation

When we’re forced into social isolation, we can rapidly lose the knack of small talk and feel anxious about our ability to interact meaningfully with others. This is especially true for those who suffer from low self esteem or shyness. You may find yourself deliberately avoiding social situations – including those you used to enjoy – or feel relieved when plans are cancelled.

The fewer social events you attend, the worse it gets. It’s a vicious circle where you literally become afraid or unwilling to go anywhere, preferring to stay home alone. Even when restrictions are lifted, leaving the relatively secure and stable environment of your home to go back to work disrupts routines that have become the “new normal.” Add fear of contracting a deadly disease, and it’s no wonder that our social lives remain impacted for months afterwards.

When you do accept invitations and join in, you may experience feelings of emotional isolation, as if you are cut off from those around you. You may find it difficult to join in the conversation or share feelings with others. It can leave you feeling numb and detached from your own emotions.

Already a problem

Chronic loneliness was a widespread problem even before the pandemic. Particularly among older adults who live alone, are retired or who have lost their life partner. Limited mobility, hearing and vision impairments can also affect elders’ ability to participate in social engagement.

People who have suffered a stroke, for example, or who are undergoing cancer treatment and have lost their hair, may be self conscious or embarrassed to be seen by others.

What to do

If you are suffering from the effects of social isolation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Consult a mental health professional or phone a help line if you are suffering from:

• Confused thinking
• Delusions or hallucinations
• Excessive feelings of anger or fear
• Extreme swings in emotion
• Inability to cope with daily problems
• Major changes in eating or sleeping patterns
• Numerous unexplained physical ailments
• Prolonged depression
• Social withdrawal
• Substance abuse

In addition to identifying underlying issues, a therapist can develop a treatment plan to help you regain control of your social life, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Self care and caring for others

You should also explore self care strategies, such as following a daily routine, engaging in relaxing, stimulating or creative activities, maintaining healthy habits and staying connected through phone and/or video calls, email, texting and social media platforms. However, don’t let social media become a substitution for real conversation.

Some people may find it difficult to ask for help. Keep an eye out for those who might need assistance. A friendly phone call or thoughtful gift like a box of chocolates or bunch of flowers can make a huge difference to someone who doesn’t have the emotional, mental or financial resources to get out and satisfy their social needs.

This is especially important over the festive season, when everyone else seems to have plans or large family gatherings to attend. Remember to include elderly family members or neighbours in your plans, if Covid-19 restrictions allow, or make it possible for an elder to attend a function or enjoy special treats. Your kindness can help them feel loved and special, and let them know they are still needed and wanted.

Take your mother or granny for a visit to the beach, or set up a picnic at home. Encourage them to talk to you, but don’t force the issue if they are more comfortable just listening to the conversation, rather than joining in.

It’s only a few hours of your time. But to someone who battles loneliness and isolation every day, it means the world!