Effects of Social Distancing on the Body and Mind

Social Connection has long been known to be a necessary part of health. An article in Science from 1988 stated, “Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health – rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity” (House, 1988).

Did you read that? This was saying that lack of social connection is just as detrimental to health as risk factors such as cigarette smoking, elevated blood pressure and obesity.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, this is what numerous studies have shown to be the truth. Despite the fact that lawmakers are telling us that social distancing might assist in public health, we know that lack of social connection actually causes illness. There is a direct relationship between a lack of social connection and elevated cortisol (the hormone that causes the body to be under stress, which is dangerous when it is prolonged), increased inflammation (which is a precursor for heart disease, diabetes type 2, cancer, mental diseases and more) and decreased oxytocin (the hormone that is associated with feeling calm, peaceful and loved, and which also inhibits fear and nervousness) (Ballantyne, 2017).

No wonder there is chaos, worry and anxiety throughout today’s isolating world! Social distancing is causing increased stress and inflammation, and causing our bodies to have more fear and less peace.

With many people turning to the internet for social connections, studies have been done to see if online relationships provide enough connection to counteract the dangers of social isolation. While some online interactions are positive (such as video chats with family), negative social interactions are rapidly increasing, with more cases of cyberbullying, eating disorders and increased feelings of loneliness despite video calls with colleagues or other acquaintances. Additionally, findings show that people with preexisting anxiety and depression are more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media.

Furthermore, an article published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2005 discussed two important concepts known as social disconnectedness and perceived isolation. According to the article, social disconnectedness is characterized by a lack of contact with others, while perceived isolation is “the subjective experience of a shortfall in one’s social resources such as companionship and support.” Conclusions of the numerous research studies cited in this article showed different health compromises between those who were socially disconnected and those with perceived isolation. It appears that social disconnectedness promoted more physical illnesses, while perceived isolation led to more mental symptoms. When both disconnectedness and isolation were present in an individual’s life, the physical and mental issues seemed to compound (Cornwell, 2009). 

While this data was published before the forced disconnectedness of 2020, I would venture to say that even if people are “connected” either virtually or in-person while wearing masks, this still causes the perception of isolation, and thus brings its own health risks even though there is an element of connectedness. I do not believe that optimal, healthful connectedness can be achieved unless people are together in person without distancing and without masks. 

So what do we do? 

First be aware that if you have been feeling more sick, depressed or anxious since the forced isolations, your feelings are real. You are not making them up, and you can and should deal with these feelings. Fortunately, the solution may be easier than you thought. 

While fear and mandates restrict our in-person connection, we still can engage in meaningful and healing relationships by elevating the quality of our interactions. Practicing empathy and listening well to those with whom you are communicating causes a higher level of connection. Spending time with a few close friends and family creates better connection than time with many superficial friends. Engage in physical touch with loved ones as often as possible and appropriate. If trying to connect online, virtually visit frequently with close friends and family, and consider blocking out the many voices of people you barely know on social media. Lastly, know that your body is smart and is telling you what you need. If you are finding yourself feeling lonely, and wanting to connect with others, listen to this instinct. Isolation is not good for us. Do not allow fear to keep you from community.

Ballantyne, S. (2017). Chapter 30. In Paleo principles: The science behind the paleo template, step-by-step guides, meal plans, and 200 healthy delicious recipes for real life (pp. 373-377). Las Vegas, NV, NV: Victory Belt Publishing.

Cornwell, E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50(1), 31-48. doi:10.1177/002214650905000103

House, J., Landis, K., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. 

Science, 241(4865), 540-545. doi:10.1126/science.3399889

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