As social isolation takes its toll, the health effects of loneliness come into sharper focus.
Most of us have been under some level of lockdown for a better part of a year, resulting in a drastic drop in our social activities. These restrictive measures are intended to reduce the spread of a potentially deadly illness, but could they be breeding another problem?
Compared to an infectious pandemic, loneliness seems more like an inconvenience than a legitimate concern. But research finds that loneliness can be hard on both the mind and body. In addition to the anxiety and depression that commonly characterizes the social isolation of loneliness, studies find that it also poses a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, a weakened immune system, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Youth are often highlighted among those whom loneliness impacts most during this pandemic. In July, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said that suicides and drug overdoses have far surpassed the death rate for COVID-19 among high school students.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jodi DeLuca has seen many adolescents in her practice struggling with restrictions due to the lockdown.
“It’s because that age is all about socializing,” DeLuca said. “They’re very depressed.”
Before the pandemic, people over 50 years of age were cited among those hit hardest by loneliness. Big changes to your social circle typically come with advancing age, such as retirement, kids leaving the nest, or the death of a spouse. COVID-19 restrictions have often meant even greater isolation for this age group.
But it isn’t just teens and seniors. DeLuca says loneliness is an emotion that can hit any one of us. And when it hits, it can be devastating.
“It’s a very overwhelming emotion, because it goes against what we are as human beings,” DeLuca said. “It puts us in survival mode—fight or flight. The research shows that what our bodies go through psychologically, physically, and emotionally when we’re lonely is the same as when there is a perceived threat.”
Conditions for Loneliness
People are, by nature, social creatures. DeLuca says that when we do seek solitude, it’s on our own terms.
Loneliness, however, doesn’t happen by choice, and the conditions for it vary from person to person. For example, you could be in a room full of people and still feel profoundly isolated. You may also find yourself completely alone yet feel no loneliness.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen says that one of the biggest surprises he has witnessed during the lockdown is the number of patients reporting a marked improvement in their mental health—a trend which they link directly to the isolation rules of COVID-19.
“These were generally introverted patients that suffered from anxiety, social phobia, and panic. They were lonely prior to the pandemic, but, oddly, feel less lonely now,” Thiessen said. “Most of these individuals attributed their improvement to the sense that their tendency to self-isolate had become normalized through the shelter in place orders. Others emphasized the sense that they no longer felt alone in being overwhelmed by anxiety and panic.”
This goes to show how loneliness can manifest in various ways. Licensed therapist Erin Cantor says it goes beyond introverts and extroverts. Cantor says that the root of loneliness is a feeling that you don’t belong and you lack true meaningful connection. And this has been a problem since long before the pandemic.
“There may be plenty of friends, but no close ones. There may even be dates or romantic relationships, but the quality and depth of these connections is poor,” Cantor said. “When this happens over an extended period of time, chronic loneliness sets in, and this is where the real emotional, mental, and physical damage can set in.”
We probably all feel loneliness at some point in our lives, but it’s usually temporary. Once we find some connection, the loneliness fades, and we feel whole again.
But Cantor says that people who fail to find meaningful connections for an extended period of time can give up in frustration, cutting themselves off even more. They stop trusting everyone, and experience deep shame over their inability to connect.
“The most devastating impact of intense and chronic loneliness is that a person, quite literally, shuts down,” Cantor said. “It may be gradual, more quiet, and less visible to others, but it’s happening all around us, especially during COVID. There really is a double pandemic of loneliness and COVID-19, and the long-term mental health effects of our social distancing and isolation are going to be very, very damaging.”
Pain of Separation
Have you ever ached from loneliness? Research validates it, showing a connection between isolation and pain. A UCLA study found the neurological pathways in our brain that light up when we register danger from a physical injury or illness are the same pathways that activate when we feel socially excluded.