The Impact of Loneliness

As social isolation takes its toll, the health effects of loneliness come into sharper focus
November 6, 2020 Updated: November 7, 2020

Most of us have been under some level of lockdown for a better part of a year, resulting in a drastic drop in our social activities. These restrictive measures are intended to reduce the spread of a potentially deadly illness, but could they be breeding another problem?

Compared to an infectious pandemic, loneliness seems more like an inconvenience than a legitimate concern. But research finds that loneliness can be hard on both the mind and body. In addition to the anxiety and depression that commonly characterizes the social isolation of loneliness, studies find that it also poses a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, a weakened immune system, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Youth are often highlighted among those whom loneliness impacts most during this pandemic. In July, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said that suicides and drug overdoses have far surpassed the death rate for COVID-19 among high school students.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jodi DeLuca has seen many adolescents in her practice struggling with restrictions due to the lockdown.

“It’s because that age is all about socializing,” DeLuca said. “They’re very depressed.”

Before the pandemic, people over 50 years of age were cited among those hit hardest by loneliness. Big changes to your social circle typically come with advancing age, such as retirement, kids leaving the nest, or the death of a spouse. COVID-19 restrictions have often meant even greater isolation for this age group.

But it isn’t just teens and seniors. DeLuca says loneliness is an emotion that can hit any one of us. And when it hits, it can be devastating.

“It’s a very overwhelming emotion, because it goes against what we are as human beings,” DeLuca said. “It puts us in survival mode—fight or flight. The research shows that what our bodies go through psychologically, physically, and emotionally when we’re lonely is the same as when there is a perceived threat.”

Conditions for Loneliness

People are, by nature, social creatures. DeLuca says that when we do seek solitude, it’s on our own terms.

Loneliness, however, doesn’t happen by choice, and the conditions for it vary from person to person. For example, you could be in a room full of people and still feel profoundly isolated. You may also find yourself completely alone yet feel no loneliness.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen says that one of the biggest surprises he has witnessed during the lockdown is the number of patients reporting a marked improvement in their mental health—a trend which they link directly to the isolation rules of COVID-19.

“These were generally introverted patients that suffered from anxiety, social phobia, and panic. They were lonely prior to the pandemic, but, oddly, feel less lonely now,” Thiessen said. “Most of these individuals attributed their improvement to the sense that their tendency to self-isolate had become normalized through the shelter in place orders. Others emphasized the sense that they no longer felt alone in being overwhelmed by anxiety and panic.”

This goes to show how loneliness can manifest in various ways. Licensed therapist Erin Cantor says it goes beyond introverts and extroverts. Cantor says that the root of loneliness is a feeling that you don’t belong and you lack true meaningful connection. And this has been a problem since long before the pandemic.

“There may be plenty of friends, but no close ones. There may even be dates or romantic relationships, but the quality and depth of these connections is poor,” Cantor said. “When this happens over an extended period of time, chronic loneliness sets in, and this is where the real emotional, mental, and physical damage can set in.”

We probably all feel loneliness at some point in our lives, but it’s usually temporary. Once we find some connection, the loneliness fades, and we feel whole again.

But Cantor says that people who fail to find meaningful connections for an extended period of time can give up in frustration, cutting themselves off even more. They stop trusting everyone, and experience deep shame over their inability to connect.

“The most devastating impact of intense and chronic loneliness is that a person, quite literally, shuts down,” Cantor said. “It may be gradual, more quiet, and less visible to others, but it’s happening all around us, especially during COVID. There really is a double pandemic of loneliness and COVID-19, and the long-term mental health effects of our social distancing and isolation are going to be very, very damaging.”

Pain of Separation

Have you ever ached from loneliness? Research validates it, showing a connection between isolation and pain. A UCLA study found the neurological pathways in our brain that light up when we register danger from a physical injury or illness are the same pathways that activate when we feel socially excluded.

Wellness writer Melanie Musson says she felt the “sting of isolation” as she was going through the last couple of months of her pregnancy. It was during her state’s imposed shut down. She said her body physically craved human connection. Thankfully, friends came to her rescue.

“Shortly before my baby was born, two friends of mine knocked at the door. I hadn’t had in-person interaction with anyone for over a month. I didn’t even know how to handle a knock at the door,” Musson said. “When I realized it was my friends and they had brought me treats, I asked if I could please hug them. I hadn’t touched anyone outside of my immediate family in weeks. I am not a hugger, but I needed human touch.”

Where restrictive orders are still in place, we’re only permitted to face the public from behind a mask and at a distance of at least six feet. Needless to say, such conditions make the connection we crave much more difficult.

“I have always loved grocery shopping. It’s by far my favorite errand. But now I’ve come to dread it,” Musson said. “People aren’t friendly. Masks hide personality so it’s harder to even make remarks in passing to other shoppers. I feel like I’m shopping with a bunch of robots.”

While there is debate about whether masks effectively slow the spread of the virus, it’s clear that these garments erase some of our most expressive features. We may be growing more accustomed to masks as the pandemic wears on, but we feel better when we meet a smiling face, even if we have to get this interaction through a screen.

Social psychologist turned lawyer J.W. Freiberg is an author of three books on chronic loneliness. In a July article, Freiberg gave several tips for lonely seniors struggling to cope with pandemic restrictions. One of his suggestions is to upgrade phone calls to a more visual medium, such as FaceTime or Zoom. Freiberg says it helps the socially starved get a taste of something psychologists call “mirroring.”

Mirroring is a trait humans share with many animals. It allows us to read nuances of emotion and intentions of those we interact with. Of course, we can still convey messages without it, but some of the most informative and captivating details of our social exchanges are often lost in translation.

“Think about when you startle a feral animal; how they hold perfectly still, staring at you, concentrating on your body language, desperately trying to determine if you are an active predator,” Freiberg writes. “We humans, of course, greatly refine this process, searching to sense subtle details about the other party’s inner emotional state. Little children are busy honing these important mirroring skills, and it is critical for them to see your loving smile and evident delight as they describe to you their activities and feelings.”

Coping With Loneliness

DeLuca also champions virtual platforms to buffer the pain of loneliness, but she admits these are a poor substitute. What we really need, and thrive on, are genuine in-person connections. And a lack of this vital human interaction may be affecting us more deeply than we imagine.

“Some people will think they have it all together, but they’re not sleeping, and they’re self-medicating more,” DeLuca said.

When real people aren’t available, people often turn to animals. Breeders, rescues, shelters, and pet stores all report that pet adoption has skyrocketed during the pandemic. DeLuca says that caring for another living being, even if it’s just a plant or a fish, can make a big difference in our mental well-being.

“We have to feel like we have some reason for being,” she said.

Some turn to the television when they’re alone, either to alleviate boredom, or just to have some voice droning in the background to give the illusion of company.

Especially when there’s no place to go, and nobody to see, television can become a reliable companion. But DeLuca warns that some media can actually worsen our loneliness, because it stirs up our already agitated stress hormones. She says the news in particular can trigger our fight-or-flight response, and it can be particularly damaging if we consume news just before bed.

“We think it keeps us knowing what’s really going on, but we also have this subliminal recurring concept of death, violence, social injustice, and so forth,” DeLuca said. “A lot of what we dream can be the last thing we talked about, saw on TV, read, or whatever. So it’s very important that we have self-awareness and are intentional about the information that’s being processed in our brains.”

Cantor says monitoring our thoughts can go a long way to lessening the impact of loneliness. She says that in a time when our fears and despair are being amplified with the isolation of lockdowns, it can help a lot just to become more aware of your feelings.

Instead of closing yourself off out of fear, reach out and look for opportunities to foster new connections.

“Looking for the good in ourselves and other people, especially in this time of social distancing, politics, and economic instability, is another simple but profound way that we can cope,” Cantor said. “There is still so much good out there in the world–either in the faces of our kids, or pets, or neighbors. It’s crucial to connect to that and keep it front and center.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner