Loneliness: The Lesser-Known COVID-19 Symptom
How a year of social isolation is impacting our mental and physical health.
Posted Dec 31, 2020
As 2020 comes to a close, many are facing the frustrating realization that, despite the silver lining of a COVID-19 vaccine, we have not yet reached the end of the tunnel. After a long year of social distancing and isolation, the idea of continuing on in this way for several more months can be devastating—mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Although we know that social distancing is crucial for protecting others during this pandemic, that does not take away the very real impact of having to avoid the social contact we are so accustomed to. Not being able to spend time with friends or loved ones, having to work from home, relying on interactions through a screen are leaving more people feeling stressed, hopeless, and above all, lonely.
Especially in older adults, where the risk of complication from COVID-19 is higher, the need to isolate mixed with the stress from the virus can pack a powerful punch.
In fact, a recent study by Hwang and colleagues (2020) began outlining just how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting us. Let’s take a closer look into the effects of loneliness on our health and some steps we can take to boost our well-being as much as possible.
Loneliness and Our Health
Social interaction is more important than we may realize. Human beings are social creatures, and while some individuals draw more energy from social interactions than others, if we go too long without seeing the people that we care about, we may start to feel the effects of loneliness.
However, feeling lonely can often be more than just missing friends or family; sustained feelings of loneliness—as we are experiencing here during quarantine and social distancing—can cause significant impacts to both our physical and our mental health.
In terms of our mental and emotional well-being, social support is known to be a massive protective factor. Especially as we get into our adult years, the quality of our support network (be it family, friends, colleagues) can help us combat things like low self-esteem, depression, or stress.
On the flip side, feelings of loneliness—not being able to access those connections—have demonstrated an increased risk for depression, stress, substance use, or even phobias.
While it may be easy to see how feeling lonely for a long period of time can lead to issues with our mental or emotional wellness, it may seem strange to think that feeling lonely can impact our physical health as well. This is because loneliness has more of a direct effect on our mental health and an indirect effect on our physical health.
In other words, feeling lonely tends to impact our behaviors, which, in turn, impact our physical health. For example, individuals who are feeling lonely might be more likely to smoke, consume more alcohol, or be less active, which, in turn, can lead to chronic health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, feeling lonely can leave us feeling more stressed, and feeling more stressed means our body’s stress response is triggered. If our stress response is going for too long without a break, it can also lead to those long-term health outcomes, specifically cardiovascular disease.
Combatting Loneliness During COVID-19
The conflict being faced across the globe these days is the need to stay separated from one another to keep those around us safe, battling against the effects of loneliness and isolation. So, how do we work against feelings of loneliness while protecting the health of others? Hwang and his fellow researchers (2020) have proposed several things to focus on to boost our physical and mental health moving forward:
Stay Connected. Although we may not be able to see many of our loved ones in-person, that does not mean we are entirely cut off from human interaction. Hwang and his colleagues (2020) emphasize taking advantage of whatever social connections we have available to us. This means not only those that may be within your COVID-19 “bubble” (family, friends, roommates in your immediate household), but also utilizing technology as much as you can tolerate.
Things like FaceTime and Zoom, though not the same as face-to-face contact, give us the taste of social contact that can work against those lonely feelings. Having a strong support network is critical in so many aspects of our health as it is, but especially so during these high-stress times.
Focus on Physical Health. It can be easy to lose motivation for our physical health when we are struggling with loneliness, but reinstating focus on little healthy habits can be a massive game-changer. Doing things like exercising, getting good quality sleep, eating balanced meals when possible, etc., on a regular basis can help prevent the physical health consequences of loneliness and can boost our mental and emotional wellness too.
It’s important to mention that if trying to implement an entire healthy routine at once adds more stress than it takes away, try adding in one thing at a time: Maybe go for a long walk each morning, or plan out your meals the week ahead.
Keep an Eye on Your Mental Health. If we aren’t careful, feelings of loneliness may snowball into depression or anxiety before we realize it. Check-in often with your mental well-being and with the well-being of those around you. Are feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or stress becoming difficult to handle, or are they starting to impact your daily life?
Things like meditation and journaling can be a great addition to your routine to help reduce symptoms of mental or emotional stress, but there may come a time when seeking professional help is the best option for combatting the consequences of loneliness. Psychology Today's Therapy Directory and places like your local physician’s office can be great starting points for connecting with a mental health professional.
With a silver lining on the horizon, the idea of spending any more time isolated from others can seem impossible. Feelings of loneliness and the emotional, mental, and physical impacts of those feelings have been piling up for months, but taking time to focus on staying connected to others and caring for our overall well-being can help us stay on top of those feelings as we enter the new year.
Hwang, T. J., Rabheru, K., Peisah, C., Reichman, W., & Ikeda, M. (2020). Loneliness and Social Isolation during the COVID-19 Pandemic. International Psychogeriatrics, 1-15.
Chu, P. S., Saucier, D. A., & Hafner, E. (2010). Meta-analysis of the relationships between social support and well-being in children and adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(6), 624-645.
Meltzer, H., Bebbington, P., Dennis, M. S., Jenkins, R., McManus, S., & Brugha, T. S. (2013). Feelings of loneliness among adults with mental disorder. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48(1), 5-13.
Mushtaq, R., Shoib, S., Shah, T., & Mushtaq, S. (2014). Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 8(9), 1-4
Richard, A., Rohrmann, S., Vandeleur, C. L., Schmid, M., Barth, J., & Eichholzer, M. (2017). Loneliness is adversely associated with physical and mental health and lifestyle factors: Results from a Swiss national survey. PloS One, 12(7), e0181442.
Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(15), 5797-5801.
Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1-2), 85-104.
Xia, N., & Li, H. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation, and cardiovascular health. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, 28(9), 837-851.
Ginsberg, L. (2020, June 02). Why Routines are Important for Mental Health. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2020/06/02/why-routines-are-important-for-mental-health/