Social isolation negatively affects mental and physical health — here's what you can do to stay healthy

Social isolation negatively affects mental and physical health — here's what you can do to stay healthy
Humans are social animals, and experts say that isolation has a large impact on our health.Westend61/Getty Images

  • The most important factor in determining how social isolation affects mental health is whether you feel lonely, or not. Feeling lonely can cause anxiety, stress, and cognitive decline.
  • The longer someone feels isolated, the greater risk they are at experiencing the mental health effects of social isolation.
  • To stay mentally healthy during social isolation try exercising, meditating, and getting outdoors more often.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center.

More than three in five Americans report feeling lonely, and that number has been rising. And now, the coronavirus outbreak has led even more of us to experience some level of social isolation.

It's widely recommended that everyone practice social distancing, which means staying six feet away from others and keeping trips to public spaces like grocery stores to a minimum. Moreover, people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus are told to quarantine at home for at least 14 days.
Social isolation, at such a stressful time, can contribute to anxiety and have a negative impact on mental health. Here's how you can stay as mentally healthy as possible.

Social isolation can negatively affect mental and physical health

Humans are social animals, and being isolated can have a big impact on our health, says Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a New York-based psychiatrist.

"All our systems, including social, psychological and biological, have developed around social groups and interaction with one another," Ivanov says. "Social isolation in most cases would bring the negative effect of loneliness, anxiety, and sometimes depression."

Social isolation is hard to define, but what matters most is whether a person feels lonely, which scientists refer to as perceived social isolation. While this can have negative effects on mental health, it can also harm physical health.

For example, research has found that perceived social isolation is associated with depression, cognitive decline, heart troubles, and a weakened immune system. In addition, one study found that loneliness can lead to a 30% increase in risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. The study's authors suggest this is because of higher levels of stress, poor sleep, and unhealthy lifestyle habits — which are more likely to occur with less social interaction and accountability. Families with immunocompromised children, who have to practice social distancing in normal circumstances, are also known to suffer physical and mental health consequences. Plus, Ivanov says the effects of isolation get worse with time.

"The longer the period of isolation, the more likely it becomes for the individual to show signs of anxiety, loneliness, and depression and other mental afflictions," he says.

How to stay mentally healthy during social isolation

Many studies about the negative effects of isolation have looked at people who are not readily able to communicate with others. But that's not the case with coronavirus, where millions of people are physically isolated but able to keep in touch via technology.

One important way to protect your mental health during social isolation is continuing to communicate with those you love, using technology like video chat.

Ivanov also recommends the following:

Overall, these activities can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, all of which promote mental health and stability, Ivanov says.

Focusing on what you're grateful for — like spending time with family or getting to try a new hobby — can also help lift your mood and combat the effects of isolation. For example, one small study of 32 healthy people found that gratitude meditation could improve mental health and emotional regulation.
The researchers used brain imaging scans and found that connections in the brain were activated during the meditation, and participant's heart rates were lowered. Further research is needed, they said, to study the potential long-term effects. But overall, Ivanov says meditating on what you're grateful for can be a helpful tool to try.

"We need to stay aware of what makes us happy and brings joy to our daily life," Ivanov says.

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