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The Risks of Social Isolation

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

As we socially isolate, we raise the risk of causing inflammation in the body which can adversely affect well-being. A recent large scale study [1] suggested that there may be an association between social isolation, loneliness and inflammation. This was identified from the analysis of 30 studies. Given the current need for social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, these findings couldn’t be more timely and suggest why there is a need to keep in touch daily with family and friends through phone or video chat.

Further research is needed but preliminary findings suggest that social isolation and loneliness both impact inflammation in the body in those 16 or older. Social isolation is linked to C-reactive protein (CRP) and higher levels of fibrinogen. CRP is a substance that normally gets released in response to tissue damage, whereas fibrinogen is involved in blood clotting. Interestingly, the link between social isolation and inflammation is more prominent in males but this requires further investigation. Although not consistent across all studies, Interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory molecule was found to be associated with loneliness rather than social isolation.  

It’s important to note that there is a difference between social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is the perception of feeling isolated through lacking quantity and quality relationships. Social isolation is the state of being physically isolated and lacking contact with one’s network or community. Both of these are risk factors for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and dementia. They also physiologically impact the body by increasing inflammation and the immune response. 

Researchers hypothesize that loneliness and social isolation increase our risk of poor health because they modify how the inflammatory system responds to stressful conditions. Inflammation usually occurs in response to injury and infection but it can also be activated by stressors and threats. Because humans are social beings, isolation and loneliness are stressors which could enhance the inflammatory response. Of course, there are other contributors to inflammation in the body but this study highlights that social isolation and loneliness should be considered in the bigger picture of health. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to physically distance and not socially isolate. What do I mean? Don’t be in physical contact with people but stay in touch. Never before has it been easier to stay connected with people through technology. In places like Italy and Spain, people are also staying connected by doing workouts individually from their balconies. In order to maintain psychological health, keeping connected is necessary especially in a crisis. This can provide some sense of normalcy and decrease anxiety by providing an outlet for stress and feelings in uncertain times.

Along with staying connected every day, other tips to decrease anxiety are to: 

  1. Exercise daily. Go for walks or jogs outside if possible to get some fresh air, while maintaining 6 feet of distance.

  2. Take deep breaths and listen to the sounds of nature – birds chirping in a forest, waterfalls or waves crashing onto a beach. Many videos are accessible on YouTube. If nature is not your jam, 432 Hz music on YouTube can calm anxiety. This frequency has been used during dental procedures [2].

  3. Use the 5 finger breathing technique – taking deep breaths in and out while tracing around each finger (beneficial for adults and children). OR use the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Name 5 things you see, 4 you feel (for example, the ground beneath your feet), 3 you hear, 2 you see and 1 you taste.

  4. Get the facts. Make sure the news sources you choose are reputable. Examples include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your physician or local public health agencies. 

  5. That being said, try not to obsess over the news. Watch or read it once or twice a day at most. Social media should also be limited as this is an easy means of spreading fear.

  6. Talk it out or write it down. If you are concerned with the state of the world, express those sentiments to friends and family or write these down in a journal. 

  7. Know that science is on the case and treatments are being investigated. After just a few months, there have been more than 1000 scientific papers on PubMed regarding COVID-19. Every day, the virus continues to be better understood through research.

References

  1. Smith, K. 2020. The association between loneliness, social isolation and inflammation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 112: 519-541. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32092313

  2. Di Nasso, L. et al. 2016. Influences of 432 Hz Music on the Perception of Anxiety during Endodontic Treatment: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. 42(9): 1338-1343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27430941

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