HUMAN beings are social beings. Over millions of years we have evolved as a species and become hardwired to interact with others, particularly in times of stress.
Indeed social connection be it through membership of tribes, religious groups, communities, families has helped humans evolve and be safe. We do better psychologically if we have at least one close and loving reciprocal relationship in our lives.
We have long understood that human beings do not do so well when we are socially isolated from each other. We now have the evidence-based research to back this understanding up. In today’s article we will highlight some of the interesting research which has examined both the physical and psychological impact that social isolation can have on our species.
Neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, John T. Cacioppo has written extensively on the subject of social isolation. Indeed his opinion is that social isolation needs to be addressed in just the same way that our drives of hunger and thirst need to be satiated.
He offers a few reasons as to why people of this generation are often more socially isolated than previous generations. He points to the fact that people are more mobile, that people are living longer (and outliving peers as they age), that while social media technology can connect people in a virtual way, it can actually make you feel lonelier if you don’t actually also connect fact-to-face with other humans.
In his research he found that lonely people are more hostile. They tend to eat more sugar and fat. They have greater resistance to blood flow in their veins, which can lead to high blood pressure. Lonely people produce more of the stress hormone, cortisol; this leads over time to impaired immunity, poorer sleep and cognitive decline in older age.
Of course, physical health status can influence your ability to be socially active and to socially connect with others in the first place. So if we are compromised by physical health problems, then we are less able to be both physically active and to search out physical interaction and connection with others.
Despite this, the research indicates that social isolation and loneliness are unambiguous risk factors for ill health and mortality. Clifford Singer an American psychiatrist and geriatrician, tells us that social isolation with or without the perception of feeling lonely can have as large an effect on mortality risk as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and high blood pressure.
Researchers, Holt-Lunstad and colleagues (2015) at Brigham Young University in Utah found a 29% increased risk of mortality over time from social isolation and 26% increase in mortality risk from perceived loneliness.
UK based research conducted in 2012, found that poor social relatioships in general (social isolation and loneliness) were associated with a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease and 32% increase in stroke risk.
From a psychological point of view, when we are alone we are more likely to turn our attention inward instead of outwards towards other people. We can get caught up in our own thoughts, which have evolved to be more negative than positive.
We have no one to bounce our worries or fears or frustrations off and we can find it harder to distinguish fact from fiction. Stress, anxiety and depression can often incline us to withdraw from social contact and we know that this very withdrawal and isolation can fuel the negative thoughts that keep the stress cycle going.
The psychological literature on loneliness and social isolation indicates that both can lead to various psychiatric disorders and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, alcohol abuse, suicidal behaviour, sleep problems and contribute to personality disorders.
A team of neuroscience researchers at Caltech have found that socially isolating mice over long periods can alter the production of certain chemical signals in the amygdala and hippocampus (parts of the brain involved in emotional processing and behaviour). These alterations can result in aggression, fear and hypersensitivity to threat in mice. This research is so interesting as humans have a similar signalling system in the brain, which means that there are implications for our mental health behaviour and psychological functioning.
So how can we address the issue of social isolation? Perhaps there are different levels of intervention; in the community, perhaps linking people into groups such as Active Retirement, Men’s Sheds and other social groups. On an individual level, psychological intervention may have a lot to offer. Psychological therapy can help the client explore the factors that have predisposed them to, precipitated and maintained their social isolation. Cognitive behaviour therapy is very useful for helping people work on negative thinking traps, exploring more helpful thinking styles and experimenting with more positive behaviours.
Mindfulness also has a role to play here. On a basic level it may help with calming the anxiety and self-judgments that can often inhibit the ability to make social connections with others in the first place. It can help us focus and manage our attention so that we can focus on other people and really listen to others during social interaction.
Indeed, a small randomised controlled trial conducted in the US in 2012 found that the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme significantly reduced loneliness in a group of older adults. The programme consisted of eight weekly 2hr group sessions, a day long retreat in the sixth or seventh week and 30 minutes of daily home mindfulness practice. During each group session, participants engaged in guided mindfulness meditation exercises, mindful yoga and stretching and group discussion.
We are an ageing population and there is strong evidence that many older adults feel isolated and that loneliness is associated with poor health and mortality. But it is not just older adults who can struggle because of social isolation. We all need to be mindful of this – of our own behaviour and of that of family, friends, neighbours and the wider community.
Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. Their next course, Mindful Compassion for Wellbeing, begins next Monday, March 25, and continues on Monday, April 1 and Monday, April 8 (10.30am to 1pm each of the three mornings). It will take place upstairs in the Central Library, O'Connor Square, Tullamore. The cost per person is €120 and the fee includes course materials and tea/coffee. The course will address the question of what mindful compassion is and why it is important for wellbeing. For more information, or to book a place, contact Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie on 0872399328 or send a private message on the Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.