Human beings are wired for meaningful connection. By nature, we strive to belong, to be part of a larger whole where we can interact with others—it is just the natural order of life. When someone is secluded, cut off from others, negative health effects result. These effects can be psychological, behavioral, or physical, or any combination of each. In short, the effects of social isolation can be profound.
Social interaction acts as a source of comfort and affirmation for us. It is healthy to have people in our lives who care about us, validate our existence, and support us through difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, some types of mental health disorders can cause people to withdraw and isolated, only compounding their condition. Others are alone due to the loss of a spouse, age-related logistical challenges, or lacking a social network after relocating or loss of a job. Left untreated, the mental illness-related social isolation can lead to additional mental health disorders as well as negatively impact physical health.
7 Effects of Social Isolation
Researchers have studied the effects of social isolation on mental and physical wellbeing and have confirmed that loneliness and social isolation is harmful to us. Some of the negative effects of social isolation include:
- Depression. One of the symptoms of depression is the tendency to withdraw from family and friends as the mental health disorder intensifies. So, depression can cause social isolation, and vice versa. Being isolated and lonely can trigger depressive disorder, and also put someone at increased risk for suicide.
- Anxiety. Types of anxiety can cause someone to self-isolate, including social anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, the individual avoids triggers that elevate their anxiety or fear levels. On the other hand, loneliness and isolation can cause symptoms of anxiety, as perception can become skewed and irrational fears take hold.
- Psychosis. Severe symptoms related to extended periods of social isolation may include hallucinations and delusional thoughts. Think of the movie “The Shining” as an example of how long-term isolation can provoke psychosis, including the manufacturing of imagined social interactions.
- Cardiovascular disease. Living a solitary life is a known health risk for cardiovascular disease. Because of the complex connection between emotional and physical health, social isolation’s adverse psychological effects can result in heart problems due to the lack of support to promote healthy lifestyle choices.
- Stroke. Just as with heart disease, the lack of social connection can also present an increased risk of stroke. One meta-study found that there was a 32% increase in stroke risk among individuals with poor social relationships.
- Sleep deprivation. Individuals who were socially isolated tended to have poor sleep quality. They report more restless sleep, insomnia, or insufficient sleep, resulting in fatigue, focus and concentration problems, irritability, and mood swings.
- Cognitive decline. For elderly individuals, social isolation and loneliness can exacerbate cognitive decline. The effects of this, such as diminishing ability to process information, memory problems, and decline of other executive functions, can further inhibit these individuals from socializing.
Treatment for Depression or Anxiety
When social isolation results in a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, it is essential to seek treatment from a mental health provider. After the initial evaluation and diagnosis, the clinician will typically begin a treatment plan that includes both medication and psychotherapy.
Medication. There are a multitude of pharmaceutical drugs available for the treatment of depression and/or anxiety. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and mood stabilizer medications. These drugs can minimize the symptoms associated with the diagnosed mental health disorder, improving the quality of life.
Psychotherapy. Talk therapy involves meeting one-on-one or in groups with a licensed clinical therapist. During these sessions the therapist will attempt to identify the reason for the social isolation that has resulted in a mental health disorder, and offer solutions. Because the isolation can cause the disorder or the disorder can lead to social withdrawal, the origins of the problem must be examined and dealt with.
How To Combat Social Isolation
It is important to understand how critical social interaction is to our overall health and wellbeing. Short periods of loneliness or isolation are not significant to negative outcomes, but extended periods are decidedly problematic. There are ways to combat loneliness, such as:
- Do not rely on email or social media for social interaction. Face-to-face visits and live telephone conversations (versus texts) are much more advantageous. With physical visits you are able to also hug someone, shake hands, or just sit aside someone, which is edifying on many levels.
- Get involved in volunteer activities. Pitching in at a local charity can lead to making new friendships as well as providing a sense of purpose, which can improve self-esteem. Ideas for volunteer gigs are the local food bank or pantry, volunteering at an animal shelter, or joining a group to visit elderly people or sick kids. There are a number of good volunteer or job options for those with social anxiety.
- Take up a new hobby. Rediscover an old passion, such as art, music, dogs, running marathons—anything that will feed your soul. By becoming involved in a passionate pursuit you will meet others with similar interests and develop new friendships
- Join a meet up group. There are thousands of meet up groups in any given geographical region, offering social outings based on certain interests. There are hiking groups, photography groups, writing groups, financial groups, travel groups and many other options which can provide ample opportunities to socialize.
The Treatment Specialist Explains the Risks of Social Isolation
The Treatment Specialist is a valuable online resource for information related to mental health, addiction, and dual diagnosis. For individuals who struggle with loneliness or isolation, The Treatment Specialist can provide useful material to help understand why it is important to receive professional mental health care to treat the underlying problem. The team of specialists can also guide you or a loved one toward which type of intervention is best for your unique situation. For more information about the risks and effects of social isolation, please contact The Treatment Specialist today at (866) 644-7911.