Two years ago, at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, public health restrictions overran our lives to stop the spread of the novel virus. Lockdowns, isolations, and quarantine measures impacted people from all walks of life, preventing them from visiting loved ones and enjoying the company of friends.
As a result, a new body of research emerged, studying the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health. Social support, known to be a significant factor in well-being, is believed to reduce the likelihood, severity, and duration of various illnesses. When devoid of support systems, the mental and physical health of both adults and children may decline.
The unfamiliarity of isolation caused many individuals to report feeling trapped, out-of-control, and alone. Though low mood or “feeling blue” are commonly associated with loneliness, other cognitive missteps and behaviors result from being lonely, too.
The effects of loneliness may manifest through:
Though many are quick to dismiss feeling alone, brain scans have shown that exclusion and isolation activate the same areas of the brain that respond to physical pain. This causes the brain to enter a hyper-aware state in an attempt to prepare for danger. However, it may cause the lonely human to interpret information incorrectly - allowing them to misread other’s intentions as threatening or competitive, by mistake.
Loneliness is also linked to lower brain cognition, where levels of cortisol and other stress hormones may increase. This is more common in older adults, putting them at a greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia. When paired with low social interaction, loneliness was even predictive of suicide in the elderly population.
Research conducted during the coronavirus pandemic noted an increase in psychiatric hospitalizations (Parmar et al., 2021) and suicidality among adolescents (Santini et al., 2021). Unsurprisingly, suicidality directly correlated to symptoms COVID-related stress, financial strain, and, of course, loneliness.
Loneliness may impact a person's ability to perform daily tasks that keep them safe, clean, and well, which is necessary to fulfill duties at work and home. Social isolation and loneliness were linked to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as stagnation and smoking. This may be due to the fact that people were also less likely to use healthy coping mechanisms, falling on learned behaviors and vices.
Loneliness is considered a form of stress, which depresses the immune system. This means feeling alone may increase the likelihood, severity, and duration of various illnesses. It also means loneliness can impair the immune system’s response to vaccines, especially in the elderly. Stress reported before and after receiving vaccines relates directly to limited antibody response.
However, the effects of loneliness don’t stop there. Continuous research suggests that loneliness can negatively affect hormonal, immunological, cardiovascular, and inflammatory responses. Feeling alone has also been linked to hypertension, with influence similar to that of smoking cigarettes.
When individuals feel engulfed by their loneliness, a vicious cycle emerges. A primary thought takes hold, which spirals into other feelings of hopelessness. For example:
“Feeling lonely is harming my mental health. Due to poor mental health, I cannot enjoy my life. I cannot enjoy life, which makes me feel alone.”
Luckily, steps can be taken to keep cyclical thinking at bay. Experts recommend establishing a plan of action to break the cycle. Decide how to remain physically and socially active, then take the necessary steps to move forward, towards your goals.
If you’ve found yourself shying away from old friends and close family, take time to repair and revitalize those relationships. You may feel awkward reaching out over the phone or through social media, but may be surprised to learn they’re thinking of you, too.
As the world opens back up and people are thrust into “new” old social situations, be sure to keep an open mind. Consider greeting others at the bus stop or grocery store: studies have shown that positive social interactions lead to people feeling more receptive to new relationships. By putting yourself out there, you’ll also experience an increase in self-esteem.
Experts recommend safely spending time outside the home, whether it be a park, garden, or market. They believe making plans, and having something to look forward to, helps keep a positive mindset and improves day-to-day quality of life.
When meeting new people, remember to give others time to “warm up” and find comfort in your presence. Treat them with kindness while remaining true to yourself, and the odds are in your favor. If you’re struggling to connect with those in your community, consider joining a group or class that caters to your interest. If you live in an area where this isn’t possible, you may want to volunteer. Giving back to others will make you feel good about yourself, while allowing you to meet new people.
Last, but certainly not least, don’t keep feelings of isolation to yourself. If your loneliness is drastically interfering with everyday life, making it difficult to complete daily activities, consider reaching out to your GP, a support group, or therapist.
As the world slowly returns to normal, remember to be gentle with yourself and be kind to others. After all, we’re still working to learn and relearn our social strengths and limitations in this strange, new life post-COVID.