Have you been feeling the impact of social isolation lately? It is that all-too familiar state of complete or near-complete absence of human contact.
You would have probably realized by now how the last 18 months have pushed the term “social isolation” to the forefront of our minds.
Even before the emergence of COVID-19, more than a third of adults aged 45 and older suffered from loneliness, and one in five Americans said they felt lonely or socially isolated.
Many lives have been turned upside down since the outbreak of this pandemic. Unpredictable changes exacerbate the effects of social isolation.
Job losses, financial difficulties, feelings of loneliness, and grief at the loss of a loved one are just a few of the changes that have occurred.
“Man is by nature a social animal.”
So said our revered and legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle. And I just can’t help but agree.
Because we are social animals that must communicate and work together with one another in order to survive and thrive.
Thus, we have this basic urge to seek out and establish interpersonal interactions. That is why sporting events draw so many fans into the stands.
The thrill of watching your favorite sport with friends or a group of strangers seated next to you is unrivaled. An experience you won’t get from watching at home. It’s the feeling of being connected.
The same feeling you get at family cook-outs and parties. The opportunity to open up and express yourself to another human being.
When that human connection is lacking, it is more harmful to your health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.
In challenging times, human contact is our greatest source of consolation.
Social relationships can help us cope with anxiety and grief, provide emotional stability, increase self-esteem, and empathize. It can even enhance our immune systems.
It’s not only bad for you physically; some of the most profound effects of social isolation are on the mind. Your mind will get so disoriented that it distorts your sense of time.
That was what French geologist Michel Siffre went through. In one of the world’s longest self-isolation experiments, he spent six months alone in a Texas cave, without human contact.
One obvious effect of his self-isolation experiment was his disrupted sleep pattern. He would sleep for 40 hours straight and then be awake for several days without realizing it.
After a few months, he could “barely string thoughts” together. He was reportedly so lonely after five months that he attempted (but failed) to befriend a mouse.
Prolonged social isolation can unravel your mind in ways that you might not fathom. One summer, 32-year-old Sarah Shourd went hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan with a couple of friends.
Unwittingly straying onto the Iranian border, they got arrested and accused of spying. For Shourd and her two friends, it began as a summer hiking excursion.
But it turned into a 10000-hour ordeal in separate tiny cells with little to no human contact.
Shourd gave an account of how the prolonged social isolation warped her mind in the New York Times in 2011:
“In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realized the screams were my own.”
I believe you would not voluntarily subject yourself to physical and mental torture like what Michel Siffre has done. You can’t imagine being in Sarah Shourd’s and her friends’ social isolation situation.
But if a social isolation scenario were forced upon you, how would you cope with it? The COVID-19 pandemic has confined roughly 4 billion individuals to their homes since early 2020.
Are you prepared to withstand the worst consequences?
Here are 7 practical strategies you can use to help you cope with social isolation:
Change is probably the only consistent thing brought about by the pandemic. So, the first thing you need to do is to embrace whatever changes that might come your way.
You must be prepared to accept that trips might be postponed and plans rescheduled. Face the reality that, whether you embrace the situation or not, time will pass by. So, just embrace it and accept the situation for what it is.
Because eventually you will have to come to terms with what happened or what is going to happen. And amidst all of this chaos, you must seek to find a silver lining every day.
Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning,explains how he found meaning in his life:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Assuage your fears by reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason. Find reasons for celebration and gratitude.
Ultimately, life will go on regardless of the choices you make.
You can feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone and yet not feel lonely.
Have you ever attended a social gathering filled with great food and wonderful people but felt lonely?
Being lonely is a feeling. What you are experiencing is probably a disconnect from others.
If you’re feeling lonely despite being surrounded by people, it’s possible that your emotional needs aren’t being met.
You craved connection, but the people you met at the party were unable to supply you with that emotional connection.
You must first overcome your loneliness before you can attract the right company into your life. As Medium writer Kei Hysi puts it:
“The moment you learn how to love yourself, the quality of your relationships will be highly improved. You will stay with people for the right reasons and you will know what to tolerate and what not.”
Get reconnected with yourself and learn to love yourself more. Only then will you be amazed at how you can be alone and yet not feel lonely.
Prolonged social isolation can have severe psychological consequences. But you can train your mind to transform negative thoughts into opportunities for change and growth.
One such technique is known as cognitive reframing. While this is something often used in therapy, you can try this on your own. It can effectively help you shift your mindset to look at a situation from a slightly different perspective.
Cognitive reframing redirects your mind to see things from a different point of view. You can start by identifying how you are currently feeling.
Then ask yourself questions like:
“Can I look at this situation from a different perspective?”
or “Can I think of any other reasons this could have happened?”
On a deeper level, you can take the introspective route and identify your current emotions. Once you recognize the state of your emotions, assign them positive labels.
If you are worried, label that feeling as a “concern.” If you have anxiety, relabel it as “excitement.” They are actually two sides of the same coin.
Both feelings increase your heart rate, but the feeling of excitement is related to joy while anxiety is linked to the emotion of fear.
One method to get through social isolation is to relabel your emotions. Here is a list of emotions you can relabel:
Frustrated = stimulated
Pressured = influenced
Worried = concerned
Anxious = eager
Dread = cautious
Fear = anticipation
This is an opportunity to use the time to pursue interests you’ve been putting off.
Solitude has always been regarded as a facilitator of spiritual renewal and psychological growth.
Take this opportunity as time for reflection and appreciation of things in life that you may have taken for granted.
Essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent two years in solitude at Walden Pond (Concord, Massachusetts). His time there became a model of deliberate and ethical living.
For him, the challenge of social isolation was a lesson in how to become a great companion to himself. Perhaps, like Thoreau, this is the moment given to you to understand your true, authentic self.
Social isolation could fester feelings of uncertainty about the future. The uncertainty, coupled with the lack of control on your part, will lead to feelings of helplessness, grief and sadness.
This would be a good time to start that project or hobby that you have put aside. Being immersed and absorbed in an activity will create a phenomenon known as a “time distortion.”
World-renowned Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recognized Time Distortion as one of the characteristic signs of Flow.
In his best-selling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he hypothesized that people are happiest when in a flow state.
This is a state in which you are completely absorbed in the activity at hand. You will also be unaware of yourself or the passage of time.
Just because you’re physically socially isolated doesn’t mean you can’t connect with the people you care about. Thanks to the internet and technology, even someone with limited mobility can reach out to their social circle.
Beyond just texting or listening to someone’s voice over the phone, you can make video calls. This is the next best thing to face-to-face interactions.
Research suggests that regular face-to-face social interactions can help reduce the risk of depression.
These days, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to making video calls for free. Here are some platforms with video call functions that you can use on desktop, mobile, or tablet:
Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Apple Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Discord.
You can use this to organize regular family group video chats or host drinking and dinner parties. And for some, there’s nothing better than going to the movies with their buddies.
Even if you can’t be together, you can always host your own virtual watch parties.
Self-care should be at the top of your priority list when it comes to your physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing.
Social isolation is also an ideal time to build healthy self-care practices because there’s less distraction from the outside world.
The first step in improving your mental health is to gain complete control over your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Being aware of your emotions is the first step in gaining more control over your emotions.
When you are aware of your thoughts, whether they are positive or negative, you are able to control your emotions.
And to help you think and feel better, you need to take care of your body. Your personal wellbeing is dependent on your mind and body working well together.
Consider how much sleep you get, how much exercise you get, and how well you look after your body.
After the pandemic, the majority of adults in the United States stated that they intended to be more aware about engaging in regular self-care measures.
When you have a daily routine that centers on self-care, that is a surefire antidote for loneliness and social isolation.
Social isolation occurs when you have little or no contact with other people. It is more physical in nature and could occur for a short period of time. But when it is extended over a long period, it could lead to loneliness, which is an emotional state.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, studies the long-term health effects of social connection. Social isolation and loneliness, according to her research, are risk factors for early mortality.
According to her, loneliness raises the chance of death to the same level as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. She added that:
“It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution.”
Louise Hawkley, a research scientist at the University of Chicago, said that being lonely or isolated is now:
“An experience that all of us are all familiar with on some level.”
Loneliness is an experience that has been around since the beginning of time. The pandemic has made us realize how important social contact is in our lives.
In the same way that the pandemic interrupted our social life, it has also primed us to develop new relationships.
And for research scientist Hawkley:
“I think that will help drive more research and attempts to resolve it.”