With social restrictions lifted, families are reuniting, friends and neighbors are reconnecting, and co-workers are catching up around the water cooler. But not everyone has emerged from the pandemic ready to rejoin the social scene. Some people are still suffering both physically and emotionally—some from lingering COVID symptoms, some from loneliness.
It seems likely that pandemic measures to “slow the spread” have decreased infection but increased feelings of loneliness and social isolation—which can jeopardize both physical and mental health. As the pandemic has less of an impact on daily life, it is important to reach out to people who are still experiencing loneliness and anxiety, because research reveals both their physical and mental health may depend on it.
A Legacy of Loneliness
Many people have been lonely for years—a state of being that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. Mareike Ernst et al. (2022) [i] recognize loneliness and social isolation as increasingly common public health concerns pre-COVID-19 pandemic, due to their serious impact on well-being, mental and physical health, and longevity. They note that the pandemic, along with associated containment measures, made loneliness and social isolation even more relevant.
Specifically, they note that COVID-19 pandemic social restrictions designed to mitigate transmission, such as physical distancing, have been identified as potential risk factors for loneliness, which in turn can increase the risk of adverse physical and mental health conditions.
Interestingly, Ernst et al. note that within the pandemic context, loneliness and social isolation are distinct concepts, because some people might have fewer contacts, but not feel lonely. They explain this is because loneliness depends on factors other than social isolation, including characteristics of the individual as well as his or her environment, including relational expectations, need for contact, personality traits, cultural norms, and physical and mental health. These variables explain why the pandemic has not affected everyone in the same way.
Comforting Company and COVID Resilience
Apparently, loneliness can even impact vaccine effectiveness. Gallagher Stephen et al. (2022) [ii] studied the response to a single dose of COVID 19 vaccine, finding that people with less social cohesion reported being lonelier, which was linked with lower antibody response. They conclude that feelings of “being in it together” impact the strength of antibody response to vaccination, emphasizing the significance and importance of pandemic social cohesion.
Erica A. Hornstein and Naomi I. Eisenberger (2022) explored the impact of loneliness on fear and the effect of COVID-19-created social disconnection on anxiety. [iii] They note that previous research suggests that social disconnection can profoundly impact individual health both mentally and physically, particularly impacting fear disorders. They report that feelings of disconnection and high levels of daily perceived threat due to COVID-19 combined to create conditions that were particularly likely to prompt dysfunctional and persistent fears. Their own research showed that loneliness damages the process through which fears are allayed, which is critical to both fear regulation as well as treatment of such disorders.
Recognizing the link between loneliness and vulnerability to both physical and mental health, we are all encouraged to go through our contact list and reach out to those with whom we lost contact during the pandemic. Social support is significant both physically and mentally. It is easy to give, and healing to receive. Pick up the phone today.
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[i] Ernst, Mareike, Daniel Niederer, Antonia M. Werner, Sara J. Czaja, Christopher Mikton, Anthony D. Ong, Tony Rosen, Elmar Brähler, and Manfred E. Beutel. “Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis.” American Psychologist, May 9, 2022. doi:10.1037/amp0001005.supp (Supplemental).
[ii] Stephen, Gallagher, Howard Siobhán, Orla. T. Muldoon, and Anna. C. Whittaker. 2022. “Social Cohesion and Loneliness Are Associated with the Antibody Response to COVID-19 Vaccination.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 103 (July): 179–85. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2022.04.017.
[iii] Hornstein, Erica A., and Naomi I. Eisenberger. 2022. “Exploring the Effect of Loneliness on Fear: Implications for the Effect of COVID-19-Induced Social Disconnection on Anxiety.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 153 (June): 1–9. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2022.104101.