The Perils of Social Isolation (And How to Break Free)

As humans, we’re hardwired to connect with others – more so than almost any other creature on this planet. Yet, unlike other highly social species, many people struggle with connecting to others. For one reason or another, millions of people battle the demons of social isolation and the effects are unhealthy and, in some cases, deadly.

The Dangers of Social Isolation

While often used interchangeably, social isolation and loneliness aren’t the same thing. After all, it’s possible for someone to sit in a classroom full of people and be lonely (yet not isolated).

By one definition, “Social isolation describes the absence of social contact and can lead to loneliness. It is a state of being cut off from normal social networks, which can be triggered by factors such as loss of mobility, unemployment, or health issues. Isolation can involve staying at home for lengthy periods of time, having no access to services or community involvement, and little or no communication with friends, family, and acquaintances.”

Aside from being sad, social isolation is also quite dangerous. Just consider some of the ill-effects:

The damage that solitary confinement inflicts on a prisoner’s mental health has been well documented over the years. And while there are some differences between social isolation in prison and the real world, the mental health effects are quite similar.

  • As mentioned, people are designed for human connection. When this connection is removed, we no longer spend our time attending to and processing external stimuli. Instead, we turn our attention inward. As psychologist Frank T. McAndrew explains, “This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister?”
  • From a physical health perspective, research shows that a lack of social connection leads to disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, higher levels of stress hormones, and greater inflammation.
  • In extreme cases, prolonged social isolation can lead to an increased risk of self-harm and suicide in people of all age groups (but particularly among teenagers and the elderly).

3 Ways to Overcome Social Isolation

It doesn’t take an expert in psychology to see that social isolation is bad. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly predominant. And if we don’t do something about it, it’ll threaten to tear apart the fabric of our society at the seams.

Here are some simple, yet effective ways we – individually and collectively – can fight back against social isolation:

1. Don’t Substitute Digital With Physical

The number of teen suicides has been on the rise for years. For a while, researchers couldn’t figure out why. But then it became apparent that there’s a strong correlation between the proliferation of smartphones and teenage mental illness.

The belief is that many of today teenagers – and likely adults – are using social media as an alternative to physical interactions with people in the real world. Entrepreneurs are working on ways to flip the script and turn social media into a powerful ally for real-world socialization. Keep this in mind and consider adjusting your own social media tendencies.

2. Weed Out Toxic Relationships

Sometimes social isolation is the result of toxic relationships that push us away from people. If you have toxic relationships in your life, it’s important that you cut these ties and establish some separation. By replacing these relationships with positive ones, you’ll have more incentive to spend time with people.

3. Join Groups

It’s tough to build a one-on-one relationship without some sort of structure in place. Most of us aren’t going to walk up to someone in the park and suddenly start a friendship. But if there’s a yoga class in the park, we may start talking to someone else in the class and gradually develop a healthy friendship.

If you’re having trouble building relationships, try joining groups that put you in close contact with others. Clubs, hobbies, religious organizations, fitness classes, recreational sports leagues, volunteering – these are all opportunities to interact with others.

The Power of Human Connection

Humans can be frustrating, mean, and hard to deal with, but don’t let this stop you from forging connections with people. At your core, you are designed to be a social creature that loves, nurtures, and communicates. Deal with any underlying factors that are holding you back and try to see the good in people. As you spend time around people, you’ll notice a positive shift in both your physical and mental health.