Mental Health Effects of Social Distancing and Isolation
- Kate Pindera
- 11 Jun 2020
COVID-19 has forced doors shut and has put billions of people worldwide in strict social isolation involuntarily.
Humans are social creatures by nature, and social isolation has made the struggle to cope with such a stressful situation ten-folds more difficult. It entailed getting physically cut off from your network of family, friends, colleagues, or basically anyone who could have been an invaluable source of support during these uncertain times.
In this article, we’ll cover the potential social isolation effects on mental health that are all equally as concerning as the global pandemic we’re facing today. Keep on reading!
“The Mortality of Isolation Is Like Smoking 15 Cigarettes Per Day”
First of all, isolation can take a toll on you physiologically. Excessive and prolonged isolation is possibly one of the worst stressors against your overall health and well being. Harry Taylor, an expert on social isolation in older adults, believes that the mortality effect of social isolation is comparable to chain-smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
“The pure fact of being confined affects the body. If you change your environment in a quite extreme way, it is changing you,” Alexander Chouker, who studies stress immunology at the University of Munich, explained in the same Wired interview as Taylor.
Based on his observations on participants of simulations of manned spaceflight missions like the Mars-500, he revealed that three months of isolation is enough time to wreak havoc on the body and result in radical physical changes in the form of:
- Disrupting normal sleeping behaviour
- Disturbing healthy metabolism
- Weakening on the body’s immune, endocrine, and neurocognitive systems
“Being confined and isolated affects human physiology as a whole,” Chouker stressed. As a result, social isolation can also potentially exacerbate any pre-existing conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s.
Isolation and Its Mental Health Impact Based on Previous Outbreaks
The March 14 issue of the peer-reviewed medical journal, Lancet, featured a rapid review of evidence that provided valuable insights on the impacts of isolation on mental health. It looked into 24 research papers studying the psychological effects on people who were quarantined or experienced an extreme form of social distancing during the peak of the most prominent disease outbreaks that occurred in the early 2000s, including SARS H1N1 flu, and Ebola.
Most of the results of the studies showed that quarantined individuals suffer from different short-term and long-term social isolation effects, which included but are not limited to having:
- Acute stress disorder
- Emotional exhaustion
- Substance abuse
People in social isolation reported high levels of psychological distress during the outbreak, which are common indicators of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, there were also qualitative studies cited in the rapid review that pinpointed a wide range of different psychological responses to quarantine, which frequently included confusion, anger, grief, fear, numbness, and anxiety-induced insomnia.
Severe Social Anxiety
Among the most common social isolation effects that people could anticipate would be social anxiety. After months of being alone at home, told to avoid public spaces and to literally keep a physical distance of at least two metres away from others, people are sharing personal accounts of how overwhelmed they were the moment they stepped out of their apartments for the first time.
Unfortunately, it’s people with pre-existing conditions like depression or autism who will bear the brunt. Future social encounters after months of self-isolation can trigger fight or flight responses, leading to panic attacks. In addition, the lack of social exposure will dramatically affect their confidence and the way they communicate with others.
Post-Quarantine Trauma and the Possibility of PTSD
When the world eases back into the “new normal,” many people will come out unscathed. Unfortunately, not everyone will be as lucky. Experts suggest that the extended period of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic can leave people traumatized, which they say fall into post-traumatic stress disorder.
In China, the origin of coronavirus, researchers found that a staggering 96% of individuals who were discharged from quarantine facilities experienced PTSD symptoms. Healthcare workers who were quarantined after being exposed to the SARS outbreak in China in 2002-2004 still showed signs of PTSD three years after. A similar study in Toronto highlighted that 29% of individuals who were quarantined when SARS hit Canada exhibited PTSD.
It’s a theory supported by Chouker’s work. He revealed that, whether people have been on a trip to the International Space Station or in quarantine, they often experience PTSD symptoms and struggle to shift back into their normal lives.
Loneliness and the Risk of Substance Abuse
It’s not impossible to wake up to a bigger pandemic of loneliness after the waves of COVID-19 cases are over. One of the common social isolation effects that many people are grappling with today is loneliness.
It is a known risk factor for several mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, chronic stress, and late-life dementia. Loneliness also fuels addiction. People who find themselves suddenly trapped in the misery of being lonely turn to the numbing comfort that alcohol or drugs can bring.
Unfortunately, this false sense of security has a risk of developing into substance abuse. Without adequately addressing your loneliness as a social isolation effect, you can fall into the vicious cycle of addiction, which could be impossible to snap out of on your own without intervention and professional support. If you are in recovery or have a history of alcoholism, substance abuse, or drug addiction, there is a significant risk of falling into relapse.
Ask for Help If You Need to
If you are saddled with these social isolation effects and find yourself tempted to resort to harmful coping methods, please stop, take a deep breath, and talk to our therapists instead. We have a team of therapists ready to answer your call 24/7.
Freedom From Addiction aims to support people struggling with substance abuse and their loved ones, too. We also provide a FREE service that connects you with drug treatment center specialists.
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