The Psychological Effects of Social Isolation

Increased aggressiveness towards unfamiliar others, persistent fear, and hypersensitivity to threatening stimuli. These are some of the effects of social isolation described in a study done by Moriel Zelikowsky and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Zelikowsky et al., 2018).

Social Isolation

In another meta-analysis done at University of Surrey and Brunel University London, researchers found that social isolation could be linked to increased inflammation in the body (Smith et al., 2020).

As Kimberley Smith, a lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, explains, “Loneliness and social isolation have been shown to increase our risk of poorer health. Many researchers propose that part of the reason for this is because they influence the body’s inflammatory response.”

Another study found that social isolation is linked to increased risk of mortality (Alcaraz et al., 2018).

Social isolation, while it might have been something we spoke about rather infrequently in the past, now seems like it is a new normal. It is necessary. We need to do everything we can to stop the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

But just how this affects us mentally and physically is another matter altogether. While it is important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, social isolation is not good for our health – mentally or physically. And even before quarantine orders were put in place, social isolation was a growing problem. In the United States, for example, about half of people older than 85 live alone, and decreased mobility or ability to drive may cut opportunities for other socialization (Brown et al., 2017).

Social Isolation is a “Silent Killer”

Moreover, during a U.S. Senate hearing on aging issues in the spring of 2018, a representative for the Gerontological Society of America urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities, stating that social isolation is a “silent killer that places people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes.”

Now, more than ever, the effects of social isolation will be felt, and more so by those already at risk, as the coronavirus is much more deadly to the elderly population.

There is hope, however. In a study that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology, in 2018, the authors concluded that most detrimental were “the lack of interpersonal connections.” When people were able to develop and maintain more interpersonal connections – remotely or otherwise – the effects of social isolation were not nearly as powerful (Alcaraz et al., 2018).

So where does this leave us? Now, more than ever, is the time to pick up the phone, send an email, text, or message, reach out, and stay connected. Your brain and body will thank you.

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