The Coming Pandemic of Loneliness
Why We Need To Care About Social Isolation Now More Than Ever

A week ago, most of us had never heard the term “social distancing”.

By now, it seems most people have embraced the practice as the best thing we can do to flatten the curve and mitigate the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as vital as it is to practice social distancing right now, it also limits our access to one of the most essential supports for our physical, mental, and emotional health — our social network.

In fact, loneliness and social isolation are considered bigger risk factors for premature death than obesity, smoking, and lack of access to medical care. 1Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352

In addition:

  • Insufficient social contact can lead to impaired brain development in infants. 2Makinodan, M., Rosen, K. M., Ito, S., & Corfas, G. (2012). A Critical Period for Social Experience-Dependent Oligodendrocyte Maturation and Myelination. Science, 337(6100), 1357–1360. doi: 10.1126/science.1220845 .
  • United Nations investigators have said unequivocally that solitary confinement is tantamount to torture, cautioning that beyond 15 days, the psychological effects could become irreversible.3Special Rapporteur on Torture Tells Third Committee Use of Prolonged Solitary Confinement on Rise, Calls for Global Ban on Practice | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. (2011, October 18). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.un.org/press/en/2011/gashc4014.doc.htm
  • And we know that loneliness leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, when prolonged, can lead to a variety of mental and physical health problems, including increased susceptibility viruses.4Doane, L. D., & Adam, E. K. (2010, April). Loneliness and cortisol: momentary, day-to-day, and trait associations. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841363/

So as we do our civic duty by limiting in-person contact, it’s more important than ever that we’re proactive about taking care of our social health, and that we have new ways to meet our social needs.  

What is Social Health?

I’m proposing the term “social health” to promote the idea that our physical, mental, and emotional health depend as much on having our SOCIAL NEEDS met, as they do on having our PHYSICAL NEEDS met.

While most people readily acknowledge that physical needs like food, water, clean air, and shelter are essential for humans to survive, we have a harder time accepting that social needs, such as attention, affection, inclusion, intimacy, and status, are also necessary for our health and happiness.

Humans are wired to be social. Our ability to work together and share knowledge has been our biggest competitive advantage as a species. And whether we’re aware of it or not, much of our time, effort, and energy is spent trying to satisfy our social needs. 

So the need for social health cannot and should not be underestimated, and the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing isolation will highlight this fact more than ever.

What are Social Needs?

Social needs are those needs that can only be met by other people. And the effects of satisfying or not satisfying them are biological and vital to our health, happiness, and even our survival.

I’ve identified 5 Core Social Needs. There are others, however, the important ones right now are:

Inclusion: the need to feel like we’re accepted by others and that we belong

Status: the need to feel like we have the respect and esteem of others

Attention: the need to be seen

Intimacy: the need to be understood and accepted, and

Affection: the need for physical touch

Since these needs are not as urgent as some of our physical needs, like, say, the needs for oxygen, for water, or for food, it’s easy to downplay them or overlook their importance. 

But fail to meet them, and there’s no happiness, no contentment, and no sense of well-being. Depression takes over, and our physical health deteriorates.

So, how do we get our social needs met during a time when social distancing is imperative?

Before we get into that, I just need to reiterate that MOST IMPORTANTLY,  you need to listen to the experts right now about how much social distancing you need to do to keep the population safe. 

If you live in an area where you’re not supposed to leave your home except to get food, then follow those guidelines. Don’t have friends over or playdates with the kids. And absolutely take the proper precautions: hand-washing, keeping a safe distance, avoiding touching your face, limiting contact when you’re outside, and so on.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for helping to get your social needs met, to protect against depression and illness while social distancing.

I should also say that I’m not a licensed therapist or counselor and that the following is my opinion only, informed by my work with men and women as a social, dating, and relationship coach, as well as the scientific research I’ve done to that end.

#1: Consider co-isolating

If you live alone, the next few months will likely be a real challenge for you. If you can stay with family or friends for a few months — and you can travel to them now without putting others at risk — I’d strongly consider doing that while you still can.

Social visits (ie. hanging out at a friend’s place during the day or evening) are NOT recommended right now, and may not be an option at all soon, but if you’re isolating together as roommates or a family, then you can get some of your social needs met without increasing the risk of transmitting the virus.

In fact, living in a group of say, five people, and designating one person to do all the shopping and errands for the group might limit contact more than if each of the five people lived alone and needed to venture out for food and medicine.

Again, what’s MOST important is that you follow the social distancing guidelines in your area. But if you can find people to co-isolate with now, you might mitigate the effects of isolation over the next few months.

#2: Combine Physical Distance With Emotional Closeness

Have you ever sat on the other side of a couch or bed with someone and felt like they were a million miles away? It’s a lonely feeling. Because your physical closeness highlights your emotional distance.

What if we focused on doing the opposite? What if we combined physical distance with emotional closeness? So when we saw strangers on our walks or shopping trips, we kept our distance physically, but were warm and friendly, made eye contact, and chatted with them?

I’ve already noticed a tendency in myself and others to avoid eye contact as we’re out as if staying in our mental bubbles will protect us from infection. It won’t.

When you’re out for a walk or picking up food, smile and make eye contact with the people around you. You can stand 10 or 20 feet away, and still socially engage.

When you’re interacting with a cashier or other worker, look them in the eyes, smile and sincerely connect with them. 

Notice the difference in your mood and state of mind after a brief, friendly social encounter like this.

I understand that under normal circumstances in a busy city, you may want to keep your earbuds in and avoid interacting with strangers. But now that social contact is scarce, you’d do well to inoculate yourself from the harmful effects of social isolation by connecting with strangers from a safe distance.

#3: Make Yourself Useful

Among the Tsimane – a society of forager-farmers in the Amazon, there are no formal ranks, everyone has equal access to everything, and no one has any official power over anyone else.

But over a series of months, anthropologists observed there were still informal, but very clear differences in social status among members. Certain men and women tended to hold more sway, their opinions were more respected, and others tended to go to them for advice more.

After measuring and quantifying the status hierarchy of the Tsimane, the anthropologists tested the members’ urine, and found that lower-status members had significantly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and were at higher risk for respiratory infection, the most common cause of sickness and death in their society.5Rueden, C. R. V., Trumble, B. C., Thompson, M. E., Stieglitz, J., Hooper, P. L., Blackwell, A. D., … Gurven, M. (2014). Political influence associates with cortisol and health among egalitarian forager-farmers. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 2014(1), 122–133. doi: 10.1093/emph/eou021

We are wired for status —  and whether you think you care about status or not, the science is clear that it has a powerful effect on our health, our life expectancy, and our feelings of satisfaction.6Marmot, M., Stansfeld, S., Patel, C., North, F., Head, J., White, I., … Smith, G. (1991). Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 337(8754), 1387–1393. doi: 10.1016/0140-6736(91)93068-k 7Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 141(3), 574–601. doi: 10.1037/a0038781

Among the Tsimane, where one’s status was very much tied to his or her ability to hunt and provide for the group, older tribe members would become depressed when they could no longer contribute.

However, older tribe members who had something to teach — a shaman for example —  were spared from this depression.8Stieglitz, J., Schniter, E., Rueden, C. V., Kaplan, H., & Gurven, M. (2014). Functional Disability and Social Conflict Increase Risk of Depression in Older Adulthood Among Bolivian Forager-Farmers. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 70(6), 948–956. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu080

One of the lessons here, is that feeling useful, helping others, and contributing to the group are significant sources of status, which elevate our feelings of self-worth, and fend off depression.

So one way to satisfy your need for status is to find ways to be useful.

They don’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. But if you can post things on social media which make people laugh, if you can share something online that’s heart-warming, or if you can somehow make people feel more connected even while they’re stuck at home, then not only will you be lifting others up, but you’ll be bolstering your own mental and physical health as well.

And if you can use one of your strengths to help others in a way most others can’t during this difficult time, even better.

#4. Use Self-Signalling

Contrary to what we often think, none of us has a very clear or stable idea of who we are9Wickelgren, I. (2012, June 8). Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More [Excerpt]. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/why-wearing-fakes-makes-us-cheat-more-excerpt/. Especially when it comes to our relational value.

This is one of the reasons social isolation is so disorienting. With a brain that’s wired to obsessively track our standing relative to other people10Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 141(3), 574–601. doi: 10.1037/a0038781, being alone for too long could leave us feeling insignificant and unsure of who we are.

And while one of the ways we form our self-concept and track our status is by observing how others react to us, another often overlooked source is our own behavior.

Psychologists call it “self-signaling”: the idea that our own actions —  the things we say and do, what we wear, our body language and so on — feed back to our brains, and affect our identity, our emotions, our physiology, and our decisions.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational has a fascinating study on how wearing what they believed to be counterfeit designer sunglasses, made subjects significantly more likely to cheat than those who were told their sunglasses were authentic.11Wickelgren, I. (2012, June 8). Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More [Excerpt]. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/why-wearing-fakes-makes-us-cheat-more-excerpt/

There’s also a famous TedTalk by Amy Cuddy called “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” about how our body language changes our physiology and affects our emotions.

So, during isolation, where external cues of status and identity are more scarce, self-signaling could be an important tool for maintaining a healthy sense of self. 

  • High-status people tend to dress well and take care of themselves. So stay on top of your hygiene and appearance, even if you’re not going to see anyone all day. Shower, and trim or shave your beard or body hair if that’s what you normally do.
  • Put on makeup if it makes you feel better.
  • Do laundry when you can, and dress well, rather than wearing the same clothes for days on end.
  • High-status people tend to take care of their territory. So keep your space clean. Make your bed every morning. Create order around you.
  • Pay attention to your posture. Low-status posture tends to involve self-protection, making yourself small, and self-soothing (ie hugging yourself). Open up your chest and your throat, and open up to the feeling of vulnerability that brings. When you open yourself up like this physically and learn that it’s safe to do so, your internal sense of status will go up, boosting your testosterone and your mood.

These things may sound trivial, but they can make a huge difference to how you see yourself, and how you feel.12Riskind, J. H. (1983). Nonverbal Expressions and the Accessibility of Life Experience Memories: A Congruence Hypothesis. Social Cognition, 2(1), 62–86. doi: 10.1521/soco.1983.2.1.62

#5. Use The Power of Shared Attention

If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie or a TV show with someone who keeps looking at their phone, you’ve probably felt annoyed or disrespected. 

When you call them out, they might protest that they’re still listening and that it makes no difference if they check their phone every once in a while.

But they’re failing to consider what psychologists call “shared attention” or “joint attention”. Put simply, paying attention to the same thing at the same time is an important way that humans connect and bond.13Wolf, W., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2015). Joint attention, shared goals, and social bonding. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 322–337. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12144

Shared attention is why we enjoy going to the movies with other people. It’s why we enjoy concerts, and plays, and sporting events with friends. Even if you’re not talking during a performance, the feeling of shared attention still enhances your feelings of connection as you experience something together.

With my kids, we’ve adopted a non-negotiable, “no devices” movie and cuddle time every night. We put away any phones, tablets, or laptops, and we watch a movie together.

We cuddle with each other and the dog, and I rub their backs as we watch. 

If you’re completely alone in your apartment, try watching a movie or TV show at the same time as a friend. Make plans for virtual watch parties of political debates or important announcements.

You can FaceTime or Skype while you watch together, or you can chat through messenger or text. I’ve had plenty of “virtual dates” like this, and while it’s not quite the same as watching something in someone else’s physical presence, it’s better than watching alone.

#6: Use technology to connect

That friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with for weeks? Now is a great time to give her a call. 

Find creative ways to use technology to connect. Have coffee with a relative by video chat. Or take the initiative to schedule a virtual party by video-conference with friends.

And yes, use social media.

Though a lot of research has focused on the dangers of social media as an inadequate replacement for face-to-face connection, it might be the best tool we have right now to connect, as long as we use it in a HEALTHY way.

I’m planning on doing an entire article this week on how to use social media to get your social needs met without succumbing to the more dark and addictive aspects of it.

But for now, I’ll simply say that moderation is key. If posting or commenting help you feel connected to others while you’re stuck at home, then don’t hesitate to post or comment. Just don’t be glued to your screen for most of your waking hours trying to get your fix of other people’s attention and approval. That won’t be good for your social health either.

#7. Keep Your Oxytocin Levels Up

Often called the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin has a huge positive impact on our mental health and on our immune system.

It’s largely responsible for that euphoric, satisfied feeling you get from cuddling with someone you care about. It’s released in women and men in different quantities during orgasm, in mothers and their babies at birth and during breast-feeding, and in lovers when they touch or stare into each other’s eyes.

Here are some ways to raise your oxytocin levels:

Cuddle if you can: Cuddle your partner if you have one. Cuddle your kids. Cuddle your pets.

Practice sustained eye contact with your family members or people you care about. Set a timer for a minute or more, and stare into each other’s eyes, thinking positive thoughts about them and wishing the best for them.

You can do this sitting, or standing, or lying down facing each other. And while it might sound a little silly or woo-woo, and it might feel a little awkward at first, the benefits are undeniable.

There’s even evidence that staring lovingly into your dog’s eyes can increase oxytocin levels in your (and their) brain.14agasawa, M., Mitsui, S., En, S., Ohtani, N., Ohta, M., Sakuma, Y., … Kikusui, T. (2015). Oxytocin-Gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 70(7), 450–451. doi: 10.1097/01.ogx.0000469196.99143.92

As we become more socially isolated, it’s essential to be pro-active about your social health, and I hope you’re willing to try things we might otherwise not. Note how you feel afterward. Just a few minutes of this and you should feel a clear difference.

If you’re in total isolation, cuddling and direct eye contact might not be possible, and you can find other suggestions for raising your oxytocin levels in this article, including taking a hot bath, telling people you love them, and practicing certain forms of meditation:

Final Word…

While these are not the only ways to get your social needs met while social distancing, I hope you at least give some of them a try.

I hope that you see the value of being proactive and taking care of your social health. And I hope you now have some tools to do that while our usual sources of social support – our friends, co-workers, and acquaintances – aren’t as readily available.

Think about who else in your community might be feeling isolated and reach out to them.

And take this time to reflect on the fact that the isolation and loneliness you’re experiencing right now, is something many, many people — especially older people — experience all the time.

So that social distancing can help not only with getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic, but can also bring greater awareness to the epidemic of loneliness that’s been afflicting many people for many years.

References

Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 141(3), 574–601. doi: 10.1037/a0038781

Doane, L. D., & Adam, E. K. (2010, April). Loneliness and cortisol: momentary, day-to-day, and trait associations. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841363/

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352

Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 127–130. doi: 10.1093/ppar/prx030

Makinodan, M., Rosen, K. M., Ito, S., & Corfas, G. (2012). A Critical Period for Social Experience-Dependent Oligodendrocyte Maturation and Myelination. Science, 337(6100), 1357–1360. doi: 10.1126/science.1220845

Marmot, M., Stansfeld, S., Patel, C., North, F., Head, J., White, I., … Smith, G. (1991). Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 337(8754), 1387–1393. doi: 10.1016/0140-6736(91)93068-k

Nagasawa, M., Mitsui, S., En, S., Ohtani, N., Ohta, M., Sakuma, Y., … Kikusui, T. (2015). Oxytocin-Gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 70(7), 450–451. doi: 10.1097/01.ogx.0000469196.99143.92

Riskind, J. H. (1983). Nonverbal Expressions and the Accessibility of Life Experience Memories: A Congruence Hypothesis. Social Cognition, 2(1), 62–86. doi: 10.1521/soco.1983.2.1.62

Rueden, C. R. V., Trumble, B. C., Thompson, M. E., Stieglitz, J., Hooper, P. L., Blackwell, A. D., … Gurven, M. (2014). Political influence associates with cortisol and health among egalitarian forager-farmers. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 2014(1), 122–133. doi: 10.1093/emph/eou021

Special Rapporteur on Torture Tells Third Committee Use of Prolonged Solitary Confinement on Rise, Calls for Global Ban on Practice | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. (2011, October 18). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.un.org/press/en/2011/gashc4014.doc.htm

Stieglitz, J., Schniter, E., Rueden, C. V., Kaplan, H., & Gurven, M. (2014). Functional Disability and Social Conflict Increase Risk of Depression in Older Adulthood Among Bolivian Forager-Farmers. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 70(6), 948–956. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu080

Wickelgren, I. (2012, June 8). Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More [Excerpt]. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/why-wearing-fakes-makes-us-cheat-more-excerpt/

Wolf, W., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2015). Joint attention, shared goals, and social bonding. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 322–337. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12144

American Psychological Association 6th edition formatting by BibMe.org.

 

One Comment

  1. Nancy Wechter March 18, 2020 at 3:19 pm #

    love this – I will share it widely. Glad you posted about this on FB. Hope you and your family (including your lovely new canine member) stay well.

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