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How does social isolation affect our mental health?

How does social isolation affect our mental health?

Published: 13 January, 2022 - Updated: 27 October, 2022 | 6'

What is social isolation?

Social isolation is one of the factors that has arisen as a potential public health problem. It can be defined as a condition in which people feel a decreasing social involvement with other people, which affects their quality of life. It is related to a state of objective separation from other people, resulting in little or no social interaction in everyday life1.

Social isolation in older people

Although this can be experienced at any stage of life, it is most common among older people, with an estimated prevalence of between 10% and 43%, depending on the life course and living conditions.

The feeling of loneliness may happen together with the experience of isolation, or even generate it as a consequence. This reality has proven to be a multi-faceted problem1.

Characteristics and consequences of social isolation

Social isolation can be characterised by feelings of boredom and/or marginality or exclusion. Boredom is caused by a lack of validation of the work itself or of daily routines; therefore, these tasks become just busy work.

Marginality is the feeling of being excluded from desired networks or groups. Other feelings associated with social isolation are loneliness, anger, despair, sadness, frustration or, in some cases, relief5.

Social isolation as a health risk factor

Aislamiento y saludSocial isolation has significant effects. A quarter of a century ago, House, Landis and Umberson published a historical review of prospective epidemiological studies of social isolation in humans. They reported that social isolation was a significant risk factor for morbidity and mortality in general, a fact that later research has confirmed.

The most surprising was that social isolation was as important a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyles and high blood pressure2.

Researchers have divided the concepts of living alone, social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is the state of having little or no contact with other people, either family or friends. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the subjective feeling of having less affection and closeness than desired in the intimate context (emotional loneliness), of feeling little contact with family and friends (relational loneliness), or of feeling socially unappreciated (collective loneliness)3.

Perceived social isolation activates neural, neuroendocrine and behavioural responses that lead to the following in adults:

  • An increase in implicit vigilance for social threats along with increased anxiety, hostility and social withdrawal.
  • Increased sleep disruption and daytime tiredness.
  • Increased vascular resistance and altered gene expression and immunity.
  • Decreased impulse control leading to responses higher in the responding hierarchy (i.e. the prepotent response).
  • Increased negativity and mood signs.
  • An increase in age-related cognitive decline and risk of dementia4.

When is social isolation a problem?

Social isolation ranges from the person who becomes isolated voluntarily and chooses to withdraw from social relationships due to a number of reasons, to those whose isolation is involuntary or imposed by others.

Intimacy or being alone, if it is actively chosen, has the potential to improve the human psyche. On the other hand, involuntary social isolation happens when the demand for social contact or communication by an individual is beyond the human or situational capacity of others.

Involuntary isolation is considered negative for mental health because it means the breakdown of social exchanges and the support they provide to the person.

Some people, such as those with cognitive deficits, may not understand their involuntary isolation, but their caregivers or environment may understand that involuntary social isolation can have a negative and deep impact on him/her.

When social isolation is experienced negatively by an individual, it becomes a problem that requires management. In fact, based on much of the literature, only physical functional disability is on a par with social isolation when it comes to its impact on the person and his/her social support network (family, friends, co-workers, etc.). Social isolation is therefore one of the two most important aspects of chronic illness to be managed in the care plan5.

Advice on how to manage the state of mind in situations of social isolation

The management of social isolation is an important subject that includes many areas to be dealt with, from individuality itself, the economic-social context, extraordinary situations, disabilities, among others. 

Different organisations around the world, such as the Psychiatric Societies and the World Health Organisation, have suggested some general recommendations, which should always be supported by professional specialists.

Here are some suggestions:

Sentirse bien

  1. Keep an eye on your diet. Some foods contain nutrients that help regulate our mood. These include foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that modulates our mood. Foods high in tryptophan include cheese, lean meats, fish, legumes and nuts. Group B vitamins and vitamin C, together with trace elements such as zinc and magnesium, can also help to maintain a good mental condition. Try to keep your usual meal times, or take advantage of the opportunity to keep them regular.
  2. Arrange your daily routine. Our body likes routines. That is why it is important to plan what you are going to do each day. A good way to do this is to write down in a small diary the tasks or activities that you are going to do, so that your brain feels more relaxed and avoid feeling anxiety and/or anxiousness.
  3. Do physical exercise. Doing exercise at home helps to keep fit and reduce stress. All it takes is moderate physical activity for your body to release endorphins, a hormone that helps maintain your mood. If possible, do exercise preferably in the morning and at least 3 hours before going to bed.
  4. Keep in contact with people. As far as possible, keeping in touch with people you trust is the best way to reduce anxiety, discouragement, loneliness and boredom in social isolation. Communication can be by phone, video call or whatever technology is available to you.
  5. Bring out your creative side. Cooking, crafting, gardening, restoring furniture or simply reading, writing, watching a good film or series, recording a video... doing activities that make you have fun or keep you amused will help you not only to be busy, but also to feel better.
  6. Try to get some exposure to the sun and air. Try to have exposure to the morning sun without sunglasses. Morning light helps to reduce fatigue, which is very important for people who are in socially isolated situations, as their biological clock is especially sensitive. Also, open the windows and go outside (balconies, terraces or even just look out of the window for 30 minutes).
  7. Take care of the quality of your rest. You should also take time to relax your body, especially before going to sleep. You can practice deep breathing, meditation or relaxation techniques. At night, the best thing to do is to turn down the lights at home. Pull down the blinds and avoid using blue light screens (mobile phones, tablets, computers) at least one or two hours before going to bed. If this is not possible, you can use a filter that blocks blue light. If you are not sleepy when you go to bed, you should do a pleasant and relaxing activity, followed by a pre-sleep routine.

Food supplements and mood

A healthy, varied and balanced diet can be complemented by food supplements, always taking into account the recommendation of your doctor.

Melatonin, Vitamin B6 and Magnesium

For example, the combination of melatonin, vitamin B6 and magnesium contribute to reduce the time to fall asleep, to the normal function of the nervous system, to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, and to normal muscle function, respectively (EFSA).

Vitamin C is good for mental vitality

Also, a recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition looks at how the properties of vitamin C positively affect mental health. The study showed that vitamin C had positive effects on attention and work motivation, on indicators of mental vitality levels.