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Social Isolation – Why is it so hard?

The comedian Larry David recently joked on YouTube that we should all be happy with the stay at home and watch TV orders. After all, what could be nicer than a government issued excuse to stay in and avoid all the stress that goes hand in hand with dealing with people? Social isolation should be something we should all be pleased with.

However, if you listen to the news, it quickly becomes evident that many people are finding social isolation very difficult. You will see videos from around the world of people banging on utensils at the same time, singing out of windows and balconies together, all in an attempt to feel connected to one another. Why then is it so challenging for us to disengage from one another and maintain social isolation?

There exists a lot of evidence in the scientific community that social isolation can cause many adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep, impaired executive functioning, cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular functioning and in general impaired immunity at every stage of life. Often movies about prisons, like The Shawshank Redemption, portray scenes of the debilitating effects of solitary confinement. While it may not sound like much of a punishment, psychologists deemed it to be a form of torture.

But why is isolation so difficult for humans to withstand? The short answer is that we humans are wired for socialization, we are social creatures. People who have lived in isolated environment, such as researchers in Antarctica, reported that loneliness was the most difficult part of their job. We are perhaps the most social creature on earth and our brains have been wired and have evolved for socialization. This means that social isolation is difficult for humans and carries with it various potential negative consequences.

Various parts of our brains, like the part responsible for empathy, the part that enhance bonding, the chemical oxytocin (aka the cuddle or love hormone), as well as emotions like guilt or shame, are evidence that our brains are very social in nature. Depriving them of something as vital as social contact can be essentially disturbing and hard to bear. Often success is determined by how well we humans negotiate and perform within our society. How good we are at forming relationships, communicating, cooperating, influencing and so on. And even small social interactions can cause humans to experience pleasure. Conversely social isolation can lead to mental health problems. Furthermore, socially isolated people are also less able to deal with stressful situations. They’re more likely to suffer depression and have difficulty with decision-making, as well as memory issues.

In some ways we are fortunate that this Covid-19 pandemic has happened now, in 2020, because due to technological advancement we are able to maintain connectedness via social media. While it may not give our brain everything it needs, it is able to stave off some of our social isolation. Reconnecting via these new means can reduce our loneliness and help restore us to good mental health. However, we must keep in mind that people who are most at risk from the current isolation measures are those who are already at heightened risk of social isolation i.e. older adults, lower income people or those who may not have friends or family to call.

At the same time, it is good to keep in mind that for some, facing this challenge of being alone for an extended period of time can show personal growth – including emotional growth, feeling closer to friends and family and gaining a better perspective on life. Some are responding by getting into new domestic creativity: baking, reading, taking walks, sewing or other finding new craft ideas. It is important as well as helpful to bear in mind that we are not alone for in many ways we are all in this social isolation together.

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