By Ingrid Worth
I have a friend that has always said, “People are people’s medicine.” While the statement has its limits, the past year seems to have demonstrated the importance of social interactions in daily life. As an introvert, when quarantine began, I was almost relieved and happy to have some extra time to myself. However, as the weeks turned into months I began to miss talking with my friends and family face-to-face as well as daily interactions I’d taken for granted, like greeting a barista at my favorite coffee shop. I wasn’t alone. As we’ve emerged from isolation, many of my friends and family have told me about facing mental and physical health challenges throughout the pandemic, largely related to isolation and stress.
While social distancing and mask mandates have been essential for keeping the deadly coronavirus at bay, clearly the measures have not come without a cost. Between quarantine orders and tedious Zoom meetings, both loneliness and stress levels have risen in the US, particularly among adolescents (Stress in AmericaTM 2020, 2020). Rates of loneliness had been on the rise well before we began quarantining, but they have substantially increased in the past year (Christiansen et al., 2021). Even as many of us have recently become social again, thanks in large part to effective vaccines, levels of stress and loneliness reported have skyrocketed in the last year and mental health continues to be a struggle for many Americans. The driving force behind the mental health crisis can in large part be attributed to increased loneliness and stress levels permeating communities long before COVID-19.
Although loneliness is an emotional state, prolonged feelings of deep loneliness can affect both the mind and the body. As a result, physical and mental health can be negatively affected, even among those who have not struggled with mental illness before. Researchers have known about the consequences of loneliness for quite some time. A 2017 study conducted on 19,890 young adults and adolescents found loneliness to be associated with a slew of physical and mental health issues such as asthma, osteoarthritis, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse (Christiansen et al., 2021). As someone who has struggled with mental health and is sometimes prone to isolating, I have tried to make extra effort in the past year to connect with friends, even when we meet over Zoom or for a phone call. Such online efforts may be especially necessary for those who are quarantined for medical reasons. A more recent study conducted in China last year among 14,505 participants found that necessary medical isolation (resulting from an exposure to COVID-19) had particularly negative consequences (Gong et al., 2021). The paper emphasized the importance of addressing the psychological problems of medical isolation to avoid the more severe consequences of loneliness.
For many, stress has also been a constant presence this past year. Many of our minds and bodies have been subjected to chronic stress, which, like loneliness, dysregulates both mental and physical functions. Excess stress can manifest as headaches, tension, fatigue, and sleep problems as well as behavioral issues such as over- or under-eating, social withdrawal, restlessness, and lack of motivation (Kok et al., 2013). Such maladaptive behaviors often compound the physical and psychological effects of stress, creating a vicious cycle. Stress and loneliness are often closely related. Having a social support system, or a group of people with whom you are willing to discuss problems and stressful situations, has been shown to reduce the effects of stress (Cohen, 2004). Social engagement, or getting involved in group or community activities, may increase positive states such as happiness, self-worth, and purpose, curtailing the negative effects of isolation. As for the immune system, being social may even create a greater resistance to developing colds (Cohen, 2004). The ways to mitigate stress and loneliness align closely with common advice for living a longer, happier life. Being social, doing hobbies that you enjoy, getting enough sleep, engaging in physical activity, and eating a balanced diet can mitigate symptoms of stress and loneliness (Kok et al., 2013). I’ve enjoyed meeting with a friend for a socially distanced walk or making dinner together over Zoom, activities that, after becoming vaccinated, I have begun to enjoy in person, without social distancing. Although the past year has been difficult, most of the effects of loneliness and stress can be remedied by a bit of social medicine.
Ingrid Worth is a NAMI Washtenaw County volunteer and a student at the University of Michigan majoring in Psychology. She is passionate about mental health advocacy and awareness, particularly among students. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and hiking.
Christiansen, J., Qualter, P., Friis, K., Pedersen, S., Lund, R., Andersen, C., Bekker-Jeppesen, M., & Lasgaard, M. (2021). Associations of loneliness and social isolation with physical and mental health among adolescents and young adults. Perspectives in Public Health, 175791392110160. https://doi.org/10.1177/17579139211016077
Cohen, S. (2004). Social Relationships and Health. American Psychologist, 59(8), 676–684. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.59.8.676
Gong, J., Cui, X., Xue, Z., Lu, J., & Liu, J. (2021). Mental health status and isolation/quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak: A large-sample-size study of the Chinese population. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 75(5), 180–181. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.13213
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., & Catalino, L. I. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–1132. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827
Stress in AmericaTM 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. (n.d.). Https://Www.Apa.Org. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october