The Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation

Lonely depressed senior widow woman with protective mask crying on couch isolated at home, sad and worried missing husband and family in COVID-19 death, lockdown, social distancing and Mental health.

I was impressed to see how writers for the TV show Grey’s Anatomy incorporated the reality of how long-term social isolation was dramatically impacting the characters, driving them to emotional outbursts, deep depression, and unhealthy behaviors. They made it clear that the waves of stress and anxiety that were overpowering these characters were stronger than their own abilities to be focused and self-controlled.

It looks like science backs up what was being depicted in this and other shows in what we are all experiencing to some extent or another because of the pandemic. So I thought it was an accurate depiction and mimicked the waves of stress and anxiety that have swept our country for over a year with similar, with devastating impacts on so many of us. And experiencing all these side effects of social isolation is not something we have much control over unless we creatively make some adjustments.

Even before the pandemic, there was research on the impact of loneliness and isolation. In an APA 2019 article entitled The Risks of Social Isolation, author Amy Novotney reported that, “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder….loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.” And that was before the pandemic.

Johann Hari in his 2019 New York Times bestseller Lost Connections shares eye-opening research on depression. “It turned out that—for the initial five years of data that have been studied so far—in most cases, loneliness preceded depressive symptoms. You became lonely, and that was followed by feelings of despair and profound sadness and depression. And the effect was big. Picture the range of loneliness in our culture as a straight line. At one end you are 0% lonely. At the other end, you are hundred percent lonely. If you move from being in the middle–50%–to being at 65%, your chances of developing depressive symptoms increased eight times.” Another scientist he quoted, Lisa Berkman, discovered that isolated people were two to three times more likely to die when experiencing extreme and prolonged isolation. “Almost everything became more fatal when you are alone: cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems.”

New research is showing that the absence of human contact actually negatively impacts brain functioning and even brain architecture. The July 2020 article from The Scientist quotes Stephanie Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist at the University of Chicago.  “We’re a social species. We really need others to survive.” The article goes on to describe how one researcher, in 1972, shut himself in a cave for more than six months and documented the experience. After five months he reported that he could barely string thoughts together and was even so desperate for company that he tried to befriend a mouse.

How Social Isolation Affects the Brain

From this and other studies researchers note that when isolated for long periods, “People routinely report confusion, changes in personality, and episodes of anxiety and depression.”

The article went on to describe the physiological impact of all this isolation on the brain. It noted that “…people who are lonely have been found to have reduced brain volumes in the prefrontal cortex, a region important in decision making and social behavior….People and other animals experiencing isolation may have smaller-than-normal hippocampi and reduced concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), both features associated with impaired learning and memory. And there is “…a correlation between the size of a person’s social network and the volume of their amygdala, two almond-shaped brain areas associated with processing emotion. More-recent evidence suggests the amygdalae are smaller in people who are lonely.” The article went on to share that people experiencing long-term isolation have distinct but closely related effects on their inflammatory responses.
COVID-19 coronavirus Affect the Brain. Human head profile with viruses inside a brain. Vector illustration

All of this research validates what many of us have become aware of: we have Covid brains! It is not our imagination when we notice cognitive impairment, those inabilities to remember and to concentrate, even to talk in clear sentences. We cannot concentrate as well, and we aren’t as creative as we were pre-pandemic.

The impact of social isolation can be circular: as a result of the cognitive decline that appears to be common with long-term social isolation, this cognitive decline can cause some people to socialize less. It makes sense to think that when you realize you are no longer functioning very well cognitively, you are less comfortable in social situations, almost embarrassed because you realize you just aren’t thinking clearly anymore.

Hopefully this information is more reassuring than alarming because it validates what many of us are experiencing. While the researchers don’t exactly know what to do because all of this is relatively new there are some things we can each actively consider to counter some of the impact of our social isolation.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Be kind to yourself when you experience some of the symptoms of social isolation. You are not going crazy. Your symptoms are the legitimate result of what is happening in the world.
  • Give yourself permission to grieve for the many losses you have incurred during this pandemic, from literally losing people to Covid to all the many emotional and psychological loss so prevalent in these trying times.
  • Work to find creative ways to be socially engaged with others. Use social media and interact with family and friends via email, texts, Zoom meetings and phone conversations.
  • Get out into nature. Enjoy the many signs of new life.
  • Frequently hug those people in your family network or friends and family members who have been vaccinated and once you have been vaccinated.
  • Spend as much time as you can loving on your pets or go to an animal shelter and rescue one.
  • Even if it is more challenging, make yourself do some reading, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, just to activate your cortex.
  • Look for funny YouTube clips or shows or watch a favorite comedy show or movie. Laughter stimulates your brain to release the neurochemicals that can counter some of the stress hormones that are more prevalent in our systems these days.
  • Create a gratitude list. Focus on all the things you are thankful for, some of which may be the result of the pandemic: putting out less money for gas, not having to dress up to go to work, being able to raid the refrigerator much more frequently.

Congratulate yourself for all your efforts to keep safe and to protect those you love. Be grateful for the ways the pandemic has changed us all for the better. If you are a spiritual person, thank God for His steadfast loving care.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How has this year of social isolation impacted you? Have you noticed that you struggle sometimes to concentrate? Have you been alarmed when your brain doesn’t function the way it used to? Are you depressed and if so what can you do about it?
  2. What are some specific things you can do today and in the coming weeks and months to reduce some of the side effects of social isolation?
  3. How can you help those around you be more aware of how normal the side effects of social isolation are and be inspired to proactively and creatively address them?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute