Social isolation has always been a part of human life, but it has become increasingly prevalent as human society has evolved. From the days of nomadic living to today’s aging populations in urban centers, society has become increasingly fragmented over time. As humans have moved from small groups of 50 to cities exceeding 10 million inhabitants, social isolation has emerged as an important public health issue.
Perceived social isolation can have a devastating impact on one’s social relationships and health. We will cover the consequences of perceived social isolation, some factors that may promote or exacerbate its effects on health, and research findings regarding the different types of social connection.
The perception of being alone when one is actually with others is referred to as ‘perceived’ rather than objective social isolation.
Perceived social isolation refers to the subjective experience that one is socially isolated, even though social contacts may be available. This perception can result from actual reductions in social contact or changes in an individual’s perception of his or her social relationships.
Research has shown that elderly people who live alone report more loneliness and a greater likelihood to stop engaging with others than those who live with someone else. A recent study revealed that older adults who live among large numbers of people reported feeling less lonely than those in the same age group who lived in regions that lacked population density.
These findings suggest that perceived social isolation is not only a predictor of self-reported health, but may also be an important marker to identify individuals at risk for other health problems.
Because human beings are hard-wired to connect with others, social isolation can have a detrimental effect on one’s well-being. Let’s take a look at some common implications of social isolation on one’s health, as well as their existing relationships with the people around them:
This is especially true for older adults. According to the National Institute of Health, research suggests that perceived isolation (loneliness) can be an important risk factor leading to chronic disease and premature mortality among older adults. This is because loneliness has been linked to abnormal cortisol secretion patterns, which often lead to inflammation.
This chronic inflammation can lead to certain lifestyle diseases, including high blood pressure, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, respiratory disease, and dementia. In addition, abnormal cortisol secretion is also linked to depression, which can impact one’s quality of life.
Having a sense of social belonging is a fundamental need, so it is important for older adults and others who are socially isolated to actively seek social relationships. Stress management may be a crucial component of cortisol regulation, but forging meaningful connections with others can matter just as much.
A good place to start doing so is by joining interest-based groups. For example, someone who is interested in astrology will appreciate bonding with a fellow astrology enthusiast over the prospect of rekindling old flames with a Taurus partner. Someone who enjoys knitting will also appreciate joining a knitting circle!
When a person is isolated from others, they may become more guarded in social situations. As a result, they may be less likely to trust others and less open when communicating with them. Generally speaking, this is caused by the fear of being hurt by others.
This leads to a unfortunate, self-perpetuating cycle of isolation and loneliness, in which people are less likely to reach out to others if they fear rejection. The result is an increase in relationship-related anxiety, which can lead either to avoidance of relationships or well-intentioned but misplaced attempts at forging new ones.
The fear of rejection and the risk of being hurt in relationships is real, but forging relationships with individuals who are safe and trustworthy can go a long way. These people can include family members, friends, and romantic partners.
It is also possible to reduce the risk of being hurt by trusted others through communication. For example, talking about fears and concerns can help both parties address potential problems before they escalate into conflicts or worse.
As mentioned, the fear of rejection and the risk of being hurt in relationships is a very real problem for socially isolated individuals. Because of this, people who lack social support often doubt their own worth and capabilities.
In fact, research shows that poor-quality personal relationships can have an even more detrimental effect on well-being than unemployment or economic disadvantage. This is especially true for people who are younger and less financially stable, as having a sense of social belonging can be even more important to these individuals due to their lack of experience in various aspects of life.
Having the support of family, friends, and other members of one’s community can make all the difference when it comes to self-esteem. Being in the presence of people who love and accept you unconditionally, even in the face of your mistakes and misfortunes, can help you feel valuable.
This is also true for people who are older or have experienced hardship in their lives. Meeting with other individuals who have had similar experiences to discuss common problems can be extremely therapeutic too.
Perceived social isolation is something that many people face, but it doesn’t have to be something that negatively impacts one’s life. Because of the inter-related nature of social contact and health, seeking out support from caring individuals can help improve quality of life for everyone.
In addition, it is the responsibility of all people to show our care and concern for others, especially those who are socially isolated. By showing kindness, empathy, and consideration to others, we can help them live happier lives through support, acceptance, and friendship!