The Impact of a Reduced Social Environment
By Kelly Cave and Madison Hanscom
While the act of social distancing is crucial in reducing the spread of COVID-19, being separated from human contact can have detrimental effects on mental health and overall wellbeing. The reason people struggle with isolation is that humans evolved as social beings. In other words, we form groups and organizations that extend beyond our individual selves and these groups help us survive.
When we are deprived of the social interactions we have evolved to become dependent upon, we become socially isolated. Social isolation has been studied by psychologists for decades, and findings are consistent: isolation has significant negative effects. Specifically, study results show that social isolation is just as strong of a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure (1).
During times like these when we are forced to quarantine ourselves for days and weeks on end, we may turn to social media outlets to compensate for our lack of in-person interactions. However, simply scrolling through social media may not be effectively fulfilling our need for connection.
Social isolation researchers have compared the impact of perceived isolation and objective isolation. The results show that perceived isolation has more negative outcomes than objective isolation. This means that whether we think or believe we are socially isolated is driving negative health and wellbeing outcomes. The impact of perceptions is closely related to the quality versus the quantity of the social interactions we experience (2). Although we can conveniently open an app on our phones and instantaneously see what all of our friends are up to, this convenience is not indicative of the quality interactions we are having on this platform.
Staying Connected During COVID-19
Instead, try methods that give you a more meaningful connection with someone that include a back and forth exchange. This might include creating a new group text message or email thread with friends or family members to get the conversation going. Another great idea is to turn phone calls into video chats, so you can see a familiar face on the other end of the line. Finally, if you are single and ready to mingle, don’t forget that online dating is still an option during social distancing! Check out dating apps to meet people in your area and instead of a first date in public, try a video chat.
To effectively handle the impact of a reduced social environment, make sure you are involved in meaningful human connections. During times of isolation, it is important for us to foster feelings of connectedness in order to ward off perceptions of isolation. Also, check out this previously published blog post on creating social connectedness where we discuss ways to foster social connections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540-545.
2. Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Norman, G. J., & Berntson, G. G. (2011). Social isolation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231(1), 17.