Haims: Social distancing is leading to loneliness and mental health concerns
The ramifications of COVID-19 are many. If the geopolitical and financial implications were not enough, the consequences of loneliness and mental health are growing exponentially.
Worry and stress over this pandemic are exacerbating mental illness, substance use disorders, and anxiety. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation article, researchers found that about 45% of U.S. adults are experiencing dramatic negative effects. With only 13% of people believing that the worst is behind us, the looming concern that the worst is yet to come must be addressed.
Often called the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a publication that defines and classifies mental disorders to improve diagnoses, treatment, and research. Although it is published by the American Psychiatric Association, a leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the U.S., “loneliness” and the repercussions have not been addressed in the most recent edition, the DSM-5 published in 2013. Perhaps, when a new edition is released, loneliness may be included.
When people think of the many factors that contribute to one’s health and well-being, loneliness is probably not within the top 10 or even top 20. Social isolation and loneliness have been studied extensively and research from Brigham Young University has found that the correlation to mortality to be 29% and 26% respectively. In a National Institute for Health Care Management webinar entitled The Health Impact of Loneliness: Emerging Evidence and Interventions, Kathryn Santoro, the director of programing, stated that “loneliness raises the risk of premature death as much as smoking or obesity.”
Managing one’s stress while socially isolating and/or being quarantined can be challenging. For many people, this is a paradoxical situation — the stress of not becoming exposed may cause the body’s immune system to be compromised and thus more like to become exposed.
Unfortunately, stress and loneliness may change gene expression and cause a potentially lethal overreaction of immune system cells called leukocytes. When this happens, the productions of cytokines increase causing a greater risk for a phenomenon called a cytokine storm.
Poor quality of sleep, poor concentration, and irritability are also associated with loneliness. In a recent International Journal of Behavioral Medicine article I learned that while the relation between loneliness and sleep is complex, there is evidence that “loneliness predicted subsequent sleep disturbance, which in turn predicted subsequent self-reported health.”
If sleep and its correlation to loneliness and social isolation is of interest to you, consider reading an article from Forbes titled, “What Is The Connection Between Sleep And Loneliness? New Research Reveals How One Affects The Other.” Another interesting article worth reading is, “Being Alone Together: The Social Pandemic of Loneliness during COVID-19.” The article, found at lifespeak.com, contains some great information and tips for addressing loneliness.
As our communities reopen, it will be important for all of us to be aware that loneliness and social distancing may lend itself to greater sensitivity to criticism and disagreements. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy — lonely people often think the worst of situations.
If you or someone you know is feeling like the victim of unstable and changing circumstances, perhaps consider enhancing social support. If you wait around for others to reach out to you, chances are, you may end up feeling rejected when people don’t. You have to make an effort to connect with neighbors, friends, and family.
If you are feeling isolated and stressed because you don’t have anybody close to rely on and talk to, consider reaching out to a psychologist. Locally, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health (844-493-8255), Mind Springs Health (970-328-6969), and the Hope Center (970-306-4673) are available to assist.
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