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  • Matthew Tsui

Detrimental Effects of Social Isolation on Mental and Physical Health

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Coronavirus's arrival back in March disrupted life as we knew. As we gradually realized that serious measures had to be taken to prevent an outright disaster, the US government imposed a social distancing mandate, which forced the closing of schools, workplaces, and public spaces. The lasting impact that pandemic would have on our lives became ever so apparent as the cases continued to climb even as we isolated ourselves at home. While many couldn't even fathom the idea of a localized virus outbreak growing to a point where daily life would have to be stopped, within a few weeks after the first COVID-19 case in the US, citizens quickly acknowledged its frightening existence. A Pew Research survey taken back in March found that nearly nine in ten Americans felt that their lives were personally affected by this virus.[1] In the face of a looming pandemic, human resilience depends on our social connections' strength, as our social environment has a significant impact on our sense of life satisfaction. Unfortunately, social distancing has only heightened feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is detrimental to our mental health.

As humans are social by nature, it seems logical that we find social isolation extremely stressful. The neurobiologist John Cacioppo suggests that the sense of loneliness serves as an alarm signal to ensure we remain firmly involved with society.[2] In 2019, the World Health Organization decided that social isolation's detrimental effects could not be overlooked, declaring loneliness to be a global health concern. A study led by the health insurer Cigna found that nearly 3 in 5 Americans felt lonely according to the UCLA loneliness scale in the US.[3] The new workplace culture and conditions may be responsible for this sudden downturn. One of the key reasons social isolation has become such an intense issue is that loneliness quickly spreads through social networks. Once the feeling of loneliness sets in, it becomes easy to fall into a downward spiral with the potential of resulting in complete social withdrawal, made evident by the hikikomori crisis in Japan.

Social Isolation Infographic | Learning for a Cause

Social isolation caused loneliness has varying effects on human health, including detrimental effects on the immune system and nervous system. Specifically, loneliness impairs the immune system, thus decreasing resistance to infections and diseases. Researchers at the American Psychological Association found that students who reported feelings of loneliness had a weaker response to the flu vaccine than students with a lower UCLA loneliness score.[6] Furthermore, Dr. Sarkar, a professor at Rutgers University, found that social bonds stimulate natural killer cells' release.[7] These lymphocytes are a part of the innate immune system to kill virally infected cells and tumors. Thus, social isolation prevents the immune system from working optimally. Social isolation also has a significant effect on the development of the nervous system. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that prefrontal cortex neurons that control reward circuitry key to brain function and behavior are impaired by social isolation. Specifically, they found that juveniles are most vulnerable, as isolation reduced the prefrontal neurons' excitability and increased inhibitory input from related neurons.[8] Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced much of the nation into social isolation, magnifies the importance of knowledge on sequestration's mental and physical health consequences.

Social Brain Function Tree | Learning for a Cause
Effects of Juvenile Isolation on the Development of the Prefrontal Complex

In a situation where we are physically unable to meet up with friends and family safely, the consequences of the lack of face-to-face physical interaction are posed. Many aspects of a physical encounter, whether it be reading others' faces or synchronizing body language and gestures, are essential to a successful conversation. Furthermore, studies have found that mentalizing and eye gaze processes have been linked to the higher reward circuitry; the importance of these aspects of interpersonal exchanges may even be responsible for the evolution of the human eye's wide and white sclera.[2] Thus, in telephone and text-only communication, many critical aspects of a conversation are lost, thus decreasing social interaction benefits. Luckily, humans have developed elaborate methods to communicate when face to face interactions become impossible virtually. For example, emojis have been used to replace the face-to-face cues essential for interpreting emotional signals.

Furthermore, Skype and Zoom interactions are an excellent alternative in our current society. While many social signals are lost through text-based social media, Skype and other video-calling platforms preserve the aspects of a face-face conservation. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that people rated face-to-face and Skype interactions with their five closest friends in a day as equally satisfying.[5]

Therefore, when the challenges against getting adequate social interaction have only continued to mount, we can turn to digital platforms such as Skype and Zoom to avoid the loneliness caused by social isolation. It is essential that we do this, as once the mindset of loneliness sets in, its effects on our mental and physical health only worsen. Thankfully, this new time of isolation has seen an influx of resources for connecting online, whether social media support groups or online healthcare facilities. As a result of this prolonged social isolation period, some people will continue to be anxious and fear interactions. Thus, it is essential that we remain supportive and highly involved in society as we prepare to adjust to everyday life.



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