The Mental Health Effects of Social Isolation

It’s no doubt that COVID-19 has changed, and continues to change, the way we socialize. Happy hours were, and in many places remain, replaced with sporadic phone calls and texting. Work meetings are now conducted by Zoom, with more communication than ever taking place over Slack and email. Concerts have been long canceled, sporting events postponed, restaurants shuttered, reopened, and for many are now closing again.

There are fewer opportunities to connect—and it can be taxing for your health. According to a study published in 2015, researchers found the effects of social isolation, or remaining far from others, could be as profound as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and twice as detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health as obesity. The study explains loneliness and social isolation, defining loneliness as the feeling that you are alone, whereas social isolation is making choices (or forced decisions, in this case) to be alone and avoid reaching out to others. The effect on health and longevity is similar, though, according to the study authors. 

Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor based in Chicago, IL, says she’s had “nonstop sessions” with people struggling from COVID-19 isolation. “Relationships have started to struggle, people are turning to inappropriate coping mechanisms to pass the time, like online shopping or drinking in excess,” she says. “People are starting to isolate now, by choice, which is a concern.” With technology to entertain us, and the advice to stay far from others, it can sometimes feel tempting to just block yourself off, or not reach out to others at all, even via phone or socially distanced gatherings, she explains. Despite the confusion and tumult of these times, people get used to new routines—of which isolating is a negative side effect, although a very important one. 

We need social connection to stay well, though. According to research, staying in touch with loved ones can ward off the effects of stress that can lead to weakened immune function, insulin resistance, gut problems, among other health issues. Ivankovich says human connection helps “decrease the risk of depression and anxiety, improving emotional regulation and overall well-being.”

Here are just some ways to socialize well this summer, even with the pandemic (and depending on where you live, shelter-in-place orders) still in full swing. 

Stay outdoors whenever possible. Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality and safety officer at UW Health in Madison, it’s okay to get together in small groups. “The good news is that being outdoors is better than being indoors, especially if you’re going to be around other people,” says Pothof. “We have that going for us as we get into summer.” If you do socialize with others, make sure you practice good hand hygiene; pack your hand sanitizer and use it regularly; and of course, wear a mask.

Continue to maintain distance, even if you are in a small group. States have different guidelines for how many people can socialize in the same place. But whether you’re around one other person or twelve, don’t just throw the rules of social distancing out the window. “People will focus on the number of people they can hang out with, and the things they can do,” says Pothof. “But it’s always with appropriate social or physical distancing. And that’s the thing, I think, we sometimes cheat on.” 

It’s easy to forget that your friends might be a threat to you when they don’t look sick—but it’s important to remember that people can have the virus, and pass it on, even if they don’t have visible symptoms. Always stay six feet apart while socializing. “The smaller the group, the safer it is,” Pothof says. “In our health system, we’re recommending no more than groups of 10.” (Check out the CDC guidelines for safely gathering in small groups here.) 

If you’re hosting a small group, Ivankovich suggests choosing a nice day, setting up lawn chairs outside at least six-feet apart. It’s a new kind of backyard party for the summer months.

Wear your masks. If you’re outside and appropriately distanced, a mask will provide you with “a lot of benefit,” says Pothof. Primarily, the mask prevents you from unknowingly spreading the disease to someone else when you have few or no symptoms. “During a pandemic, the mask is a gesture of how we’re on this together,” says Pothof. “I’ll protect you and you protect me, so that we can actually get back to the things we want to do because we’ve decreased transmission.” 

Bring your own food and drink. It’s more of a hassle, but it’s best to bring your own food and drink to any gathering, says Pothof. “If not, it’s hard to do buffet-style, because of the sanitation,” he says. Make sure food and drinks are individually wrapped or packaged, if you do have refreshments at an event. “It’s not as much fun as having a classic BBQ, but it’s definitely safer for this summer,” says Pothof. “And for the small inconvenience, probably worth it.”

And of course, do not share food or drinks with others. Be mindful of where you set your drink, so it’s not cross-contaminated.

Make virtual dates. For friends who might be at higher risk, or for those who may prefer not to physically socialize, set up Zoom or FaceTimes on a regular basis. This is especially critical for those who live alone, those who are single, or seniors who are at high risk of contracting COVID and generally more isolated from others, says Ivankovich. 

We need to consider new ways to stay in touch, at least for a while. “We have a new norm, whether we like it or not,” Ivankovich says. “One alternative is to be disgruntled by the situation —which is a sure-fire way to decrease our moods—or we can consider alternatives to the old way of doing things and get back to the things and people who make us happy.”  

Find your center with mindfulness tools on Fitbit Premium, including daily meditations, guided tracks, and more from 10% Happier and Aura

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