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Isolation, Loneliness, and Everything In Between

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept most of us at home for more than nine months now. It’s displaced millions of lives and continues to mold ours. The pandemic has brought about unprecedented circumstances where most of us don’t really know what to do or feel. Although we’ve all coped with it in our own ways, the pandemic has undoubtly created a new problem: social isolation. With everyone at home, social interaction is much harder to achieve. Despite having the internet, I can’t help but feel lonely from time to time. So I started to wonder, what exactly loneliness and isolation was? Why do people feel it? And what can we do about it?


So, what’s the difference between loneliness and social isolation? Well, loneliness is described as the subjective feeling of being alone. It’s the discrepancy between the perceived social satisfaction necessary for normal bodily function versus what you actually experience (No Isolation, 2017). The feeling of loneliness is very difficult to measure because it differs in intensity and longevity depending on the person’s self-assessment.


On the other hand, social isolation is the lack of relationships or social interactions. This is normally measured by the number of people you meet on a constant basis. Isolation is usually an indicator of loneliness, but loneliness can be felt even if you are socially active.


Loneliness, as theorized by some scientists, is similar to hunger in which it is triggered in order to help us survive. We feel hungry when we haven’t eaten, likewse, we feel lonely when we haven’t seen others.


Elena Blanco-Suárez, a Ph.D. in brain chemistry, writes how loneliness connects with neuroscience. “Social isolation affects the activation of dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons, which are key to our emotional well-being.”

Photo on Unsplash by Josh Reiner
Photo on Unsplash by Josh Reiner

These neurons, referred to as the happy hormones, control our bodily functions. Dopaminergic neurons control the reward system in our brain and a lot of ordinary bodily functions such as our mood, sleep, learning, and even movement. Serotonergic neurons help regulate our digestive system, sleeping cycle, cognition, and concentration (Medical News Today, 2019).


Although loneliness is built into human biology, it has only come to the forefront in recent years. According to Amelia Worsley, an assistant professor in English at the Amherst College, “loneliness may seem like a timeless, universal experience, (but) it seems to have originated in the late 16th century when it signaled the danger created by being too far from other people.”


Loneliness was never deemed or compared to an illness until now. Before the 18th century, according to British historian Fay Bound Alberti, chronic loneliness was rarely a problem and its dangers were different depending on the person. Most people were forced to live in communities or face a shorter life. The idea of being alone was not as easy to accept in the past. Because of the increase in self-sufficiency and single-person homes, being alone is now much more common than before.


Despite the common belief, there hasn’t been a sudden influx of loneliness in the past decade. In reality, the change is subtle and small, but that doesn’t mean that the rise is insignificant. Even if loneliness is not a pandemic, it is still an important ailment that needs to be attended to. Previous chief executive of Public Health in England (PHE), Duncan Selbie, focused his campaign on the promotion of better overall health. By focusing not only on the physical health, but also the well-being of a person, the PHE is able to better take care of their population (Boseley, 2013).


As of now, we must look at loneliness as a sign of things to come. In a research paper by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham University, she compares the studies on diabetes and loneliness. “To draw a parallel, several decades ago scientists who observed widespread dietary and behavior changes raised warnings about obesity and related health problems. Obesity now receives constant coverage in the media and in public health policy...The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago...researchers now know both the level of risk and the social trends suggestive of even greater risk in the future.”


Loneliness is still a serious issue that is present in many people’s lives. Chronic loneliness can have very dire consequences to both your mental and physical health. In a study by the aforementioned Holt-Lunstad, she states, “Substantial evidence now indicates that individuals lacking social connections (both objective and subjective social isolation) are at risk for premature mortality... A substantial body of research has also elucidated the psychological, behavioral, and biological pathways by which social isolation and loneliness lead to poorer health and decreased longevity.”

Photo on Unpslash by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia

According to that meta-analytical study, “The increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.” Loneliness can even raise the risk of getting hospitalized and being involved in emergencies. The National Academies writes that social isolation and loneliness is correlated to a 25% increase in cancer mortality, 59% increase in decline of the ability to take care of yourself, 29% increased risk of contracting coronary heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke, and much much more. Loneliness has been linked to higher mortality rates among people with heart failure.


In a study on the effects of loneliness on teens and adolescents’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s written that “Children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends.” Based on the study, anxiety, depression, and social disorders had correlations to developing loneliness and were strengthened by loneliness. Loneliness was associated with an increased risk of developing anxiety and/or depression and was tied to the duration of loneliness over its intensity. A third of parents, whose children were quarantined separately due to the pandemic, reported that their children developed mental health issues, the most common of which were “acute stress disorder (16.7%), adjustment disorder (16.7%), grief (16.7%), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (6.2%)” (Loades et al., 2020). When it comes to mental health, it may seem very intuitive, but a lot more research has to be done before we can point to specific causal pathways between mental health and loneliness.


This is not the only thing that makes loneliness dangerous; loneliness is also a cycle. Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, a senior writer in Our World in Data, says that “The relationship between health and loneliness can of course go both ways: lonely people may see their health deteriorate with time; but it may also be the case that people who suffer from poor health end up feeling more lonely later down the line.” Many people who are lonely already experience poor health conditions or social issues that may cause loneliness. Feelings of loneliness can fuel unhealthy habits that cause us to further isolate ourselves and feel even more lonely. This cycle can be very difficult to break and is a major problem holding many people back from solving their issues. Loneliness makes solving issues like depression and social anxiety harder by making it difficult for an individual to reach out and find help.


I must stress that it is alright to feel lonely. Everyone feels lonely from time to time. Misunderstanding, anxiety, isolation, all these things are part of being human. It’s really about what we decide to do with these feelings that count. So, what can you do if you feel lonely?


This modified list (from the mind organization and Newport Academy) can be a good starting point. First, you have to take things slowly. Loneliness is very difficult and forcing yourself to suddenly become social might cause your wellbeing or self-esteem to suffer. Taking things slow is an important step to make sure you aren’t going in the wrong direction. Secondly, take care of yourself. Make sure you are healthy both mentally and physically. Eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping well can all help you to not only feel better, but also be healthier. Meditating, partaking in spiritual activities, and reading can help you calm your mental health and feel better. Thirdly, you can try to connect. It might be difficult at first getting used to talking with others, so don’t be afraid to sit out of the conversation from time to time. Going to social welfare centers, volunteering, and joining clubs (*cough *cough, The Owl Pamphlet, *cough) are only a few examples of ways to connect with more people. If you still struggle after this, consider visiting therapy or professionals for more help-- there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.


Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

In times of isolation, loneliness is most prevalent. Loneliness slowly creeps into our lives when we are feeling down. When we are in the midst of challenge and turmoil, extreme change and upturn, we are the most susceptible to feelings to loneliness. That is why I have to emphasize that we cannot be quiet about our feelings. Loneliness can have many difficult and long-lasting effects and can really harm your life. We must be willing to open up and share when we feel lonely. Loneliness is universal, it is new, it is scary, and all the more deadly. The pandemic may be keeping everyone at home, but we can't let loneliness keep us from being together as a community. Never forget that you’re surrounded by people who love you. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are not alone.





Bibliography:


Blanco-Suarez, E. (2017, December 19). The neuroscience of loneliness. Psychology Today. Retrieved from:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-chemistry/201712/the-neuroscience-loneliness


Boseley, S. (2013, March 12). Duncan Selbie: ‘being isolated is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day’. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/12/duncan-selbie-isolated-bad-health


Dopamine and serotonin: brain chemicals explained. (2019). Medical News Today. Retrieved from:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326090


Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T. & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25910392/


Lepore, J. (2020, March 30). The history of loneliness. The New Yorker. Retrieved from:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/06/the-history-of-loneliness


Loades, M.E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M.N, Borwick, C. & Crawley, E. (2020, June 3). Rapid systematic review: the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID-19. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/


Mind: for better mental health. (2019, July). Loneliness. Retrieved from:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/


Newport Academy. (2020, April 8). The effects of social isolation on mental health. Retrieved from:

https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/effects-of-social-isolation-on-mental-health/


No Isolation. (2017, April 18). What is social isolation? Retrieved from:

https://www.noisolation.com/global/research/what-is-social-isolation/


Ortiz-Ospina, E. & Roser, M. (2020, February). Loneliness and Social Connections. Our World in Data. Retrieved from:

https://ourworldindata.org/social-connections-and-loneliness


Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: opportunities for the health care system. (2020). The National Academies of Science, Engineering, Medicine. Retrieved from:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the


Worsley, A. (2018, March 19). A history of loneliness. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-loneliness-91542

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