Humans are inherently social creatures who rely on interpersonal relationships for various needs. When people experience healthy friendships, family dynamics, and even casual positive interactions with others, they feel a sense of belonging and satisfaction which translates to better health. Unfortunately, when your social connections and relationships do not meet your individual needs, feelings of loneliness and isolation may occur and can have potentially devastating consequences.
How do loneliness and isolation affect physical and mental health?
Feelings of loneliness and isolation can significantly impact individuals’ health, primarily when they occur for an extended time. Unsatisfactory social relationships or connections can lead to a host of problems for both body and mind.
Physical health can be impacted by loneliness in surprising ways. According to the CDC, loneliness can significantly increase premature death, strokes, heart disease, heart failure, and other cardiovascular issues at levels comparable to those who smoke, are obese or are physically inactive. Various studies have also shown correlations between loneliness or isolation and other subjects, including poor sleep, decreased self-control, higher stress levels, and lower immunity.
Depression and anxiety are potential disorders related to good positive and healthy social relationships. Mental health struggles can also develop from feeling isolated or lonely. Extended social isolation may even increase an individual’s risk for dementia or cognitive decline.
How do loneliness and isolation impact various demographics?
While all people require personal connection and interaction, individuals and specific demographic groups may have different needs or struggles related to loneliness and isolation. Anyone can, at times, experience isolation from others. Those without close family or friends, who have moved to a new place, who differ from their community, or belong to any kind of outgroup are at risk of missing out on their desired level of social connection.
Single parents may have children around, but that is not enough to prevent feeling lonely or isolated from social relationships with peers. Parenting, even with a partner, already comes with these challenges, which can be exacerbated if you are also dealing with a problematic co-parenting situation or experiencing a loss.
Seniors are a group significantly affected by social isolation. Experiences like divorce, becoming a widow or widower, children growing up and moving away, retirement, chronic illness, and moving to a retirement home or care facility can increase feelings of isolation.
People with mental illness can have symptoms reappear or increase in severity if they do not have access to a support network, including friends, family, or others to connect with.
Immigrants may face language barriers, differences in customs or local dynamics, or not have established social relationships. They may also feel particularly lonely being away from their home, culture, or family.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community may be affected by discrimination and stigma, even experiencing breaks in relationships with family and friends who do not accept them, leaving them isolated from former social groups.
Differently-abled people may experience increased isolation or feelings of loneliness depending on their individual case. They may face barriers in communication, discrimination, stigma, or even physical impediments preventing more effortless engagement in social relationships.
How to reduce isolation and loneliness?
Unfortunately dealing with loneliness and isolation is becoming a very common experience. Many people from all walks of life report feeling a lack of social connection or relationships at some point in their lives. Sometimes experiencing these feelings is a consequence of more significant events like a pandemic, when people need to stay apart to stay safe.
Though it may seem impossible, isolation and loneliness do not have to become a permanent state. Even if you must be physically apart from others, there are many ways to stay connected and build new social relationships.
- Reach out to friends or family you haven’t talked to in a while or have lost touch with. Send an email, a letter, a text, or even pick up the phone and give them a call. \
- In situations like a pandemic, where physical distancing is necessary for a while, it is crucial to connect with others. Try scheduling in social time like with regular video calls to catch up and even share a meal, movie, game, or activity from your own homes. Find ways to get together safely outdoors in small, appropriately spaced-out groups.
- Find groups to join where you can connect with others over shared interests like a book club, cooking class, community college course, club sports team, fitness class, or community theater. It is easier to maintain relationships when you have things in common – plus interest-based groups give opportunities to connect with others in a structured, low-stress environment.
- Technology opens up many opportunities to make social connections and build virtual relationships with real people. You can join social networks and find groups for people in similar life situations, with similar interests, or just looking to connect with others. Just be conscious of using social media, as seeing other people’s “highlight reels” can actually increase a feeling of being left out.
- Volunteer for a cause dear to your heart. You can find others who share similar interests or values and also gain satisfaction from giving back to your community. Especially consider working with populations at risk for loneliness to help others while helping yourself.
- If you are experiencing significant mental or physical health struggles related to loneliness or isolation, speak with your doctor or a mental health professional who can support you with various resources.
When feelings of isolation or loneliness become overwhelming, it is hard to imagine how to change your circumstances. With a bit of effort and maybe some support, there are ways to create and maintain healthy social relationships and connect to others, no matter your situation.