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The stress and anxiety of social isolation

What is social isolation?

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people have been advised to physically distance and socially isolate to help reduce the spread of the virus. 2020 has been the year when, as individuals and as households, everyone has retreated into their own safe bubbles.

The extent of this restriction has depended on the government guidelines in different countries (or whether a person was exposed to, or infected by, the virus), but people the world over needed to adjust, at some point, to staying home and only venturing out when necessary.

Students went from going to school every day to online learning, while adults adapted to a new work-from-home life wherever possible. Entire industries were shut down and the social fabric of society changed overnight.

Most importantly, social mixing outside of households has been either heavily discouraged or severely restricted during spikes in infection rates. Elderly people and the most at-risk have particularly felt the brunt of community mitigation measures.

While all of this has merely been a pandemic management response to contain COVID-19 and protect ourselves and our neighbors, there is no doubt that the resulting social isolation has taken its toll on mental health.

This toll has not only been felt by those who consider themselves to be “people persons,” but also by those who prefer their own space and yet still struggle with prolonged periods of isolation. It’s not surprising when you dig into the reasons why.

“Loneliness can be toxic to the body,” says Carolina Osorio, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Loma Linda Behavioral Health Institute. “We see this in our elderly patients, but we know it can impact anyone who is disconnected from the people around them.”

A June 2020 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that the number of US adults reporting symptoms of mental and psychological distress during COVID-19 went from 3.9 percent in 2018 to a staggering 13.6 percent in April 2020. What’s more, 24 percent of adults aged 18-29 have reported mental distress in 2020 versus 3.7 percent in 2018.

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By making daily meditation as much a priority as wearing masks and washing hands, we can protect our mental health and have a much better chance of fighting depression and everyday anxiety.

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The risks of social isolation on mental health

Humans are social animals by nature. It’s in friendship, community, and support networks where people foster strong bonds, and where their emotional moods can be boosted by a shared experience, a sense of togetherness, or camaraderie.

The importance of regular social connection cannot be overstated, and the science backs this up again and again.

Multiple studies over the years demonstrate how detrimental isolation can be for people’s mental health. Loneliness has strong links to depression, poor immune function, and a decline in cognitive ability. Simply put, our happiness and health depend on the relationships we enjoy, cultivate, and rely on with other people.

One of the most in-depth and long running studies, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, shows how relationships underpin our well-being, and how damaging social isolation can be.

By following the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores over 80 years, researchers found the men (Harvard didn’t accept women when the study began in 1938) who were healthiest were those satisfied with the relationships in their lives. “The surprising finding is that … how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said study director and professor of psychiatry Robert Waldinger. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

The study showed that these social relationships were the most important factor in predicting a long and happy life, more than, say, genetics, money, or class.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” Waldinger said. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

“Many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community,” he added.

How to be social during social distancing

In some countries, limited contact in restricted numbers were possible when mitigation measures were eased. But how do we make sure to maintain relationships while under lockdown, or during strict social isolation?

Obviously, modern technology has made it easier to connect with people who are not only down the street but thousands of miles away, and it becomes more important than ever to use the phone, messaging apps, and social media to stay in touch, while also making the most of video chats to have virtual catch-ups, individually or as a group.

One major drawback of socially distanced interactions is touch starvation. As humans, we crave physical contact with others and suffer when that is taken away.

The need for physical affection begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. The onset of COVID-19 meant that hugs and handshakes were ruled out, but research shows that even online meetups and workouts release oxytocin and make us feel better. So while interactions online are not ideal, they still bring feel-good benefits.

Looking after our mental health … and immune system.

With all the emphasis being (understandably) on physical health — social distancing, exercise, frequent hand washing, wearing masks, and staying home as much as possible — it’s easy to forget the crucial importance of taking good care of our mental health. This is a non-negotiable.

Cases of depression and anxiety in people skyrocketed in 2020. In a study carried out by the CDC, 40.9% of 5,470 participants reported adverse mental or behavioral health, including those who struggled with an anxiety or depressive disorder.

It is important to keep in mind that our mental health absolutely affects our physical health, and — crucially — our immune systems. For example, when we are stressed, depressed, or anxious, our sleep is affected, and chronic sleep deprivation is linked to obesity and diabetes, as well as many other health issues. Poor sleep also weakens the immune system.

"What we show is that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep. Seven or more hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health," said lead author Dr. Nathaniel Watson.

Meditation has been proven again and again to help combat depression, anxiety, sleep issues, phobias, loneliness, and much more. What’s good for the mind can be very good for the body, and that is where Headspace can help.

Meditation for loneliness and social isolation

A lot of the circumstances around social isolation may be out of our hands, but we can control the way we respond to them by using every tool available to us … and that is where meditation comes in, to help soothe our minds and afford us some calming perspective.

By making daily meditation as much a priority as wearing masks and washing hands, we can protect our mental health and have a much better chance of fighting depression and anxiety.

With Headspace, you have access to hundreds of guided meditations, including the Reframing Loneliness course. With this 10-day course, you can learn what it means to be lonely, the origin of the emotion, and how you can start feeling more connected to the world around you. There are also guided meditations to help steer you through any feelings of anger and sadness you might be experiencing. The Navigating Change course is specifically tailored for times of upheaval and uncertainty, so that is worth checking out, too.

The beneficial impact that meditation has on depression and mental health is prolific, and has been proven through multiple studies and research. A July 2020 study from Yale University showed that students who practiced mindfulness, breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga reported improvements within areas of well-being including depression, mental health, stress, mindfulness, and social connectedness.

While meditation is mostly a solitary activity — a chance for you to have some alone time and focus on your own health and happiness — there are ways to turn that into a group activity. Download the app today and join Everybody Headspace which features live and daily guided meditations you can participate in while knowing you are part of a group of like-minded people, all joining in at the same time.

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions,” says the Dalai Lama. Prioritize your happiness and well-being by setting aside even just ten minutes a day to meditate, focus, and breathe. Social isolation is tough — let’s try and get through it together.