Thomas Jefferson University

Loneliness in Times of Isolation

Social isolation can change our brain and our lives. What are signs loneliness is affecting us, and how do combat it?
6-May-2020 10:45 AM EDT, by Thomas Jefferson University

Newswise — Humans are social creatures. In fact, a significant amount of research from psychologists and social scientists have shown that interactions with others are necessary for both our physical and mental health. Due to the requirements for stopping the spread of COVID-19, many of us are experiencing the effects isolation for the first time.  We are also learning that existing in these conditions of isolation is not easy. Apart from worries about our health, families, jobs, and bills (which are very stressful!), research on the effects of loneliness and isolation has shown that these conditions can also impact the brain.  These changes can impact our moods, alter our memory and also impact our decision making. Therefore, it is important to take steps to mitigate some of these isolation-induced changes.

Studies over the past few years by Richard Smeyne, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience and   Director of Jefferson’s Comprehensive Parkinson’s Disease Center along with his colleague Michael Zigmond, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, have used animal models to show that different forms of isolation, like that experienced by people in nursing homes or in the criminal justice system, can by themselves cause measurable changes in the brain. “It alters our neurons, changes our brain’s chemistry and  reduces the complexity of our brains in key areas,” says Dr. Smeyne.  And, as Michael Zigmond added, “it can effect brain regions associated with mood motivation, and cognition.”

They also point to the research of their colleague in the field, the late John Cacioppo, PhD. He showed that how we feel about our isolation may be more important to our long-term health than isolation itself. It’s the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. Put another way, you can be in a crowd, but if you feel that crowd is hostile toward you or even just ignoring you, that’s worse than being alone. He describes some of his work in a video he recorded a few years before he passed away and in his book, Loneliness. In other words, loneliness is different than isolation, and isolation doesn’t have to end in loneliness.

So what are signs that isolation and loneliness is affecting our well-being, and more importantly, how do we combat it? First, here are some signs to look out for in ourselves and those we care about: Poor sleep, inability to focus, lethargy, excitability, loss of connection to others, and even an increased tendency to get sick due to a reduction in the capacity to fight off infection.

Poor Sleep

Poor sleep is an important symptom of isolation, and could be a sign that loneliness is affecting you. When people begin to feel isolated, the brain can stay overly alert, leading to disturbed sleep. Sometimes people can feel less alone by watching TV or listening to podcasts or the radio, but it’s important to keep proper sleep hygiene by unplugging, turning off screens about an hour or two before bed. Instead, read books, magazines, or comics or listen to music right before bed.

Lethargy and Excitability, Leading to Difficulty Focusing

Studies have also linked social isolation and loneliness with cognitive decline. These conditions can also alter mood, often leading to a lethargy, depression, and what may seem counter-intuitive, a state of hyperawareness. All of these may impact our impact our ability to focus on tasks. One helpful way to get motivated is to write out goals in smaller, more manageable steps. Crossing out the components you achieve lets you see your progress even if the final goal hasn’t been completed yet.

Social Withdrawal

People who become isolated tend to feel shy, develop poor social skills, are depressed, and have more negative moods. And though some might say that shyness and social inability can cause loneliness, Dr. Cacioppo found the opposite is also true. In experiments with groups of people, he demonstrated that imposed loneliness actually causes changes in our brains that make people see others as threatening. Therefore, the lonely individual will become more shy, which leads to a self-reinforcing cycle that can be difficult to break. Isolation and loneliness are best battled with reciprocal connections, a so called “give and take”. That’s why it’s so important, with isolation our new norm, to continue to reach out to others and maintain a feeling of connection. 

Any of these signs of symptoms might be a good reason to take steps toward actions that help you feel more connected with others. Here are some additional tips to help us better reduce the negative effects of isolation which we invite you to share with others. 

  1. Maintain and keep social connections – this is essential to physical and mental health. People who are isolated have shorter “health spans” and even shorter life spans. Find ways to stay in touch with others through the phone and email, and through mechanisms that allow you to see each other, such as Zoom, Facetime, and Skype. Plan regular “gatherings” of family and friends through these means. For example, a number of people have started book clubs or chat groups with people who share interests. 
  1. Exercise regularly – this is also essential to your health. Exercise has been shown to reduce the impact of aging as well as virtually all diseases. Research has also shown that it can reduce the negative effects of loneliness. If it is safe and permitted for you to walk outside, do so, just put a mask on and keep your distance. The CDC website has suggestions for the amount and type of exercise that is recommended depending on your age. Working on – or even starting – a garden or a landscaping project is also exercise and has many positive features, too. And if being outside is not feasible, find ways to exercise at home, even from the seat of your chair
  1. Maintain a structure to your day. Isolation can impact many of our body’s functions, increase stress, and lead to a decrease in our ability to fight-off infections and illness. The ability to protect ourselves against infection is particularly important during this pandemic. One of the best ways to reduce stress is make sure you get enough sleep. If you can’t maintain your normal sleep/wake schedule, brief naps are a good way to make sure you get enough rest. For those of us who are taking medications, it is also important to make sure you keep an adequate supply and to take them regularly. Diabetics: Be particularly careful to avoid high levels of blood glucose. 
  1. Eat regularly and well. One of the objectives of social interactions and exercise is promoting anti-inflammatory processes, a key to surviving infections. Eating well is part of that effort. Try to eat healthy, nourishing foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds. We realize that it may be more difficult to get the foods we’re used to these days. Try for a variety and foods with bright colors and healthy qualities. Also, food and eating is an occasion for social interaction, so try to sit down and eat with your family. If you are alone, try making a virtual date to cook, eat, or have drinks with others over video-chat. 

During this COVID-19-imposed isolation, many of us, perhaps for the first time, are experiencing isolation and loneliness. We know that connecting with others often takes a lot of effort and planning. However, as our shelter in place continues, keeping these connections are more important than ever. “We just hope that this experience helps others empathize with those who have no say in their conditions of isolation, like those residing in nursing homes or people in who are in jail, a great many of whom are living in conditions of solitary confinement. Imagine living in these conditions for years or even decades, a situation that we consider to be inhumane” says Dr. Smeyne.  “I hope we, as a society, can learn from our shared experience of isolation and create lasting changes in the care of our elderly, the chronically lonely, the homeless, and the criminal justice system.” says Dr. Zigmond.

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