Of all of the impacts of COVID, one that has started to receive more attention is the lasting effect of the social isolation the pandemic has caused. Loneliness was actually on the rise even before the pandemic. But the forced decrease in opportunities to engage with each other obviously compounded the problem. Personally, I have especially noticed the difference in how I feel emotionally since things have opened up more, and I have been able to reconnect with friends and family in person.
The relief and satisfaction I have felt made me look into the health effects of isolation and what we have all had to deal with.
Why Is Isolation Bad For Humans?
Studies have shown that a lack of connection to others has real health impacts physically and mentally. In fact, it has been shown that lack of social connection has a greater impact on health than smoking, obesity, or hypertension.
Social connection generally refers to having someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing a personal problem. Men have generally had a higher likelihood of lacking such connections, given the unhealthy male tradition of lone-wolfing it. The problem is, lack of connection not only affects mood and mental health, but it also affects longevity and physical health.
Evolutionarily, it makes sense. Survival is less likely if you are cast out from your tribe, thus we are hard-wired to be social creatures. Studies have even shown that social connections impact genetic expression in favorable ways, enhancing immunity, for example.
What Are The Negative Effects Of Isolation?
When people feel a lack of connection, they are more likely to feel depressed and anxious. The long-term effects include increased inflammation and increased susceptibility to disease.
But, just like engaging in an exercise program will improve your physical and emotional health, pushing yourself to feel a connection with others will help your overall health.
So how do you do that?
Why Social Connection Is Good For Mental Health
Now, I am not suggesting you to spend more time on social media or push yourself to be around others if you don’t want to. You can cultivate a sense of connection with others just by using tools such as loving-kindness meditation.
Of course, re-learning social skills can help also. Many of us have become so comfortable with being alone that we have developed a sort of inertia. Patients and friends describe how much tougher it is to build up the motivation to make plans with others and execute them. But this socialization muscle is one we must redevelop. It may have atrophied over the last year and a half, but pushing yourself to engage with others will help you to be happier and healthier.
Simple Benefits Of Social Connections
Here are 4 things you can do today to get back into the healthy habit of connecting with others and reap the benefits of social connections:
- Make it a goal to reach out to one person you haven’t had contact with for the past year each week for the next four weeks.
- Plan an activity with at least one other person outside: a walk, hike, picnic or bike ride.
- Try a loving-kindness meditation on YouTube.
- Volunteer with a service project.
Remember, social isolation is not only lonely, it is a health hazard. We are social creatures, even as introverts. Don’t go it alone, even if that has become your norm. Reach out and share a bit of your life with someone – you’ll be healthier and happier as a result.
Looking for more ways to help increase your social health?
Get my Social Connection Tool Kit and stop letting a busy lifestyle or lengthening to-do list keep you from staying in touch with your buddies or reconnecting with old friends. This tool kit will provide you with the science-backed tools to proactively reinforce existing and new relationships so you don’t slip into becoming one of the frightening statistics about male isolation.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.