The Perils of Social Isolation

Humans are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. When we go through a trying ordeal alone, a lack of emotional support and friendship can increase our anxiety and hinder our coping ability. Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress about being by yourself or feeling disconnected from the world around you. It may be felt more over a long period of time. It is also possible to feel lonely, even when surrounded by people.

Isolation is being separated from other people and your environment. Sometimes this occurs through decisions we make ourselves, or because of circumstance e.g. doing a job that requires travel or relocation.Other reasons include;

Losing a loved one or friend through death or relocation

Lack of close family ties

Living alone

Difficulties in meeting new people due to access issues, an introverted personalities, or feeling like you don’t belong

Feelings of loss or grief

Poor physical health, frailty, mobility issues

A mental health condition such as depression or anxiety

Fear of rejection from others or feelings of being “different” or stigmatised by society

Inability to participate in activities due to access issues, mobility, illness, transport

Retirement from work, home relocation, starting out in a new role or community

Lack of purpose or meaning in life

Language or cultural barriers, or reduced connection with your culture of origin

Geographic isolation

Feeling lost in the crowd

Yet it is so often at these very times of high stress especially depression, anxiety and mental illness that we experience our most extreme sense of loneliness and isolation. We gradually withdraw from social engagements. We start cancelingl engagements, ringing in sick to work, many eventually withdrawing completely from the workforce. With this withdrawal comes added anxieties about being able to even go to the shop, the bank and even simple every day tasks. It snowballs.

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but long periods of loneliness or social isolation can have a negative impact on your physical, mental and social health. Some signs include:

  • Physical symptoms – aches and pains, headaches, illness or worsening of medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions – increased risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia or panic attacks
  • Low energy – tiredness or lack of motivation
  • Sleep problems – difficulty getting to sleep, waking frequently or sleeping too much
  • Diet problems – loss of appetite, sudden weight gain or loss
  • Substance use – Increased consumption of alcohol, smoking, medications, drugs
  • Negative feelings – feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or thoughts about suicide

The Importance of Human Connection

Yes, other people can be irritating. But they are also our greatest source of comfort, and an impressive amount of psychological research underscores the importance of human contact.

Rejection by others psychologically wounds us more deeply than almost anything else, and research by neuroscientists reveals that ostracism can lead to feeling actual physical pain. Other studies confirm that loneliness isn’t good for anyone’s health. It increases levels of stress hormones in the body and leads to poor sleep, a compromised immune system, and, in the elderly, cognitive decline. The damage that solitary confinement inflicts on the mental health of prison inmates has also been well-documented.

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling.

This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica’s extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.

Seeing ‘Ghosts’ or feeling ‘presences’  as an extreme for of loneliness

Perhaps the strangest thing that can happen to someone in isolation is the experience of a “sensed presence,” or the feeling that another person—or a supernatural being—is with us.

Sensed presences usually appear in environments with static physical and social stimulation, such as when you’re by yourself in a quiet, remote place. High levels of stress are also common ingredients.

Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.

The vividness of a presence can range from a vague feeling of being watched to seeing a seemingly real person. It could be a god, a spirit, an ancestor, or a personal acquaintance. A famous example occurred in 1933, when British explorer Frank Smythe attempted to climb Mt. Everest alone. He became so convinced that someone else was accompanying him on his climb that he even offered a piece of cake to his invisible partner.

Possible explanations for a sensed presence include the movement of boats (if sailing solo) and atmospheric or geomagnetic activity. Stress, lack of oxygen, monotonous stimulation, or a buildup of hormones can trigger changes in brain chemistry that induce altered states of consciousness. There’s actually exciting new evidence from a research group led by neuroscientist Olaf Blanke that stimulating specific brain regions can trick people into feeling the presence of a ghostly apparition.

Although sensed presences are most frequently reported by people in weird or dangerous places, it’s not unreasonable to assume that these experiences can occur in more mundane surroundings. People who have lost a loved one may shut themselves off from the outside world and rarely leave home. The loneliness and isolation, coupled with high levels of stress and unchanging sensory stimulation, may produce the same biological conditions that trigger a “visit” from the recently departed. Studies indicate that almost half of widowed, elderly Americans report having hallucinations of their late spouse. These experiences often seem to be a healthy coping mechanism and a normal part of grieving.

What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, perhaps in the absence of actual human contact our brains may manufacture social experiences in an attempt to preserve our sanity.

Friendship is a lot like food. We need it to survive. Psychologists have found that human beings have a fundamental need to form close relationships and be included in group life. We truly are social animals.

The upshot is we function best when these social needs are met. Close relationships make it easier to stay motivated to meet the varied ups and downs of life.

Evidence suggests when our need for social engagement is not met there are mental and even physical ramifications. This puts a strain on both the brain and the body. Some effects work subtly through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Over time these effects become more distinct, taking a serious toll on health; eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, even undermining learning and memory.

Isolation begins with an awareness to a deficiency in relationships and broader social interaction. This cognitive awareness plays throughout our minds like an emotional soundtrack. It makes us feel sad, empty and left longing for contact. We may even feel separate and disconnected from others. Over a period of time, these emotions tear away at our mental well-being.

In adults, isolation is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism. It even appears to be the leading cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.

Here are just some of the ways isolation compromises health:

Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike. Isolated individuals report higher levels of perceived stress, even when they are relaxing when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people. Isolation raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence. Isolation destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. Being awake more at night and spending less time in bed actually sleeping than those who are not isolated. In other words, we are built for social contact. There are serious— life-threatening —consequences when we don’t get enough. We can’t stay on track mentally and are compromised physically. Being social is not only enjoyable – it’s crucial for your health.   

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