How social isolation affects mental and physical health
  • Social isolation can negatively affect mental health, as well as physical health. 
  • Research has found that perceived social isolation and loneliness are associated with depression, cognitive decline, poor sleep quality, a weaker immune system, and potential heart problems. 
  • Here are some of the best ways to stay mentally and physically healthy during social isolation. 
  • This article was medically reviewed by Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center. 
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

More than three in five Americans report feeling lonely, and that number has been rising. And now, the coronavirus outbreak has led even more of us to experience some level of social isolation. 

It’s widely recommended that everyone practice social distancing, which means staying six feet away from others and keeping trips to public spaces like grocery stores to a minimum. Moreover, people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus are told to quarantine at home for at least 14 days. 

Social isolation, at such a stressful time, can contribute to anxiety and have a negative impact on mental health. Here’s how you can stay as mentally healthy as possible. 

Social isolation can negatively affect mental and physical health 

Humans are social animals, and being isolated can have a big impact on our health, says Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a New York-based psychiatrist. 

“All our systems, including social, psychological and biological, have developed around social groups and interaction with one another,” Ivanov says. “Social isolation in most cases would bring the negative effect of loneliness, anxiety, and sometimes depression.”

Social isolation is hard to define, but what matters most is whether a person feels lonely, which scientists refer to as perceived social isolation. While this can have negative effects on mental health, it can also harm physical health. 

For example, research has found that perceived social isolation is associated with depression, cognitive decline, heart troubles, and a weakened immune system. In addition, one study found that loneliness can lead to a 30% increase in risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. The study’s authors suggest this is because of higher levels of stress, poor sleep, and unhealthy lifestyle habits — which are more likely to occur with less social interaction and accountability. 

Families with immunocompromised children, who have to practice social distancing in normal circumstances, are also known to suffer physical and mental health consequences. Plus, Ivanov says the effects of isolation get worse with time. 

“The longer the period of isolation, the more likely it becomes for the individual to show signs of anxiety, loneliness, and depression and other mental afflictions,” he says. 

How to stay mentally healthy during social isolation 

Many studies about the negative effects of isolation have looked at people who are not readily able to communicate with others. But that’s not the case with coronavirus, where millions of people are physically isolated but able to keep in touch via technology. 

One important way to protect your mental health during social isolation is continuing to communicate with those you love, using technology like video chat. 

Ivanov also recommends the following:

  • Exercise: Exercise is a well-documented stress reducer. It boosts endorphins (our feel-good chemicals) and decreases stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Even during social isolation, you can still safely go for a run, workout at your desk, and maintain strength and muscle.  
  • Meditate: Research has found that meditation can reduce anxiety and depression. A 2019 study of mobile meditation apps found that 10 minutes per day of meditation made college students feel less depressed and more resilient. The more they used the apps, the stronger the results were — though further research is needed to gauge whether these benefits can last over long periods of time. 
  • Connect with nature: Getting outdoors, especially into sunshine and green space, can improve mood by slowing activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has been associated with anxiety. If you can’t get outside, listening to natural sounds (like that of rain or birds) or even looking at pictures can help. 

Overall, these activities can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, all of which promote mental health and stability, Ivanov says. 

Focusing on what you’re grateful for — like spending time with family or getting to try a new hobby — can also help lift your mood and combat the effects of isolation. For example, one small study of 32 healthy people found that gratitude meditation could improve mental health and emotional regulation. 

The researchers used brain imaging scans and found that connections in the brain were activated during the meditation, and participant’s heart rates were lowered. Further research is needed, they said, to study the potential long-term effects. But overall, Ivanov says meditating on what you’re grateful for can be a helpful tool to try. 

“We need to stay aware of what makes us happy and brings joy to our daily life,” Ivanov says.

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