Social Life in the Age of Social Distancing

For the past month, many of us have been practicing social distancing. We’re staying at home and limiting how much time we spend outside. Whether that’s going to work, getting groceries, going shopping, everything seems to have slowed down significantly.

While we get used to this new normal, we may never get used to the feelings of social isolation that inevitably come with social distancing.

These days, we find ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. Whether you’re scrolling through the news/social media, or finding new hobbies  - it’s likely that you’re trying to keep yourself busy.

But perhaps we’re also trying to distract ourselves from the dramatic decrease in our social interactions. Sure, we might be keeping in touch with family and friends through video chat and texting. But it’s not the same, is it?

Whether you’re an introvert (rejoicing in not having to come up with lame excuses as to why you can’t go out on a Friday night) or an extrovert (trying to find some way, any way, to hang out with your friends virtually), your social life has changed in some way.

And the fact is, socializing is important. Human beings are social beings.

We all have a need to belong, to exist within a community, to take part in social celebrations. It’s what makes us human.  

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In this post I’ll be covering the negative effects of social isolation and why exactly we need to socialize in order to maintain our mental health.

Let’s get into it.

Are You Going Through Social Withdrawal?

Within the past few weeks, you’ve probably experienced a lot of different emotions. Whether it’s fear, or uncertainty or even grief – it’s a been a stressful and confusing time.

It doesn’t help that right now, we’re pretty socially distant from one another, at least physically. Before, it used to be easy – if you missed your friends or family, you’d make plans to go out to eat or meet up at someone’s house. That would fulfill your social appetite and everything would be fine.

It’s a little more difficult now. It’s not like you can get up and go to your mom’s house if you miss her (and her cooking). We’re becoming used to this new normal where our social interactions have changed significantly.

So of course, you’re probably going through some social withdrawal. While there doesn’t seem to be a set of scientific “signs” that can tell you whether or not actually experiencing social withdrawal, we can talk a bit about something similar – loneliness.

Social Isolation and Loneliness

Because it has become more difficult and less accessible to fulfill your social quota, you may be more inclined to not put in the effort.

And before you scoff at my insinuation that giving your mom a quick phone call or sending a text in your friends’ group chat is somehow difficult, think about it.

Under normal (i.e. non-pandemic) circumstances, would you prefer to see your friends and family face-to-face or have a conversation with them through text or video chat?

If you’re like me, texting isn’t the best way to connect with someone. Right now, I really miss the face-to-face to connections I had with my friends and family. I really don’t feel like calling people or texting them, because I worry that it won’t be enough for me to feel socially fulfilled.

While this is understandable, the bad news is, not engaging in any kind of social interaction could be making our social withdrawal worse.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Global News found that 54% of Canadians are currently feeling lonely or isolated.

But what exactly does it mean to be lonely?

Social Isolation vs. Loneliness

Let’s talk about social isolation first.

Simply put, social isolation is the opposite of social interaction. Having a few social contacts or none at all can cause a person to feel socially isolated.

On the other hand, loneliness is a bit different. It doesn’t necessarily mean being alone, rather it refers to feeling alone. You can feel alone even if you are surrounded by people. If you’re feeling lonely, you’re feeling unsupported, isolated and socially disconnected.

While being socially isolated is different from being lonely, both can often co-occur. The emotional state of loneliness can reflect a person’s subjective experience of feeling socially isolated.

The Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness doesn’t discriminate – anyone and everyone can feel lonely. Loneliness can contribute to many different kinds of psychological issues including depression, social and generalized anxiety, aggressive behaviours, increased substance use, and suicidal thoughts.

Additionally, loneliness can cause poor sleep quality and lead to risky health behaviours (smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet). Feeling lonely has also been associated with a host of physical ailments including, obesity, elevated blood pressure, reduced immune response, and can exacerbate cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

Phew. Ok, clearly, being lonely for an extended period of time is bad for you.

So how can I not feel so lonely?

Why Do I Need to Be Social?

We discussed how loneliness can negatively impact your physical and mental health, but what about the opposite?

How exactly does socializing work to improve someone’s overall well-being?

Social Support and Your Mental Health

Social support refers to both the physical and emotional support given to us by those in our social circle, including our family, friends, co-workers and others. Having a social support system is having a group of people (a social network) who love us and care about our well-being.

Equally important is knowing that you have a group of people who care for you.

While both the quantity (“how many “) and quality (“how much”) of your social network is important, most research has shown that receiving more love, empathy and care is a better predictor of good health than how many people are in your social circle.  

Research has also found that perceived social support and feelings of loneliness are negatively correlated. This means, if you feel that you have a strong social support system, you also don’t feel as lonely compared to someone who lacks a social support system.

Additionally, having high-quality social support systems can prevent individuals from engaging in risky behaviours, and increase overall resilience to stressful events. Strong social supports have been shown to reduce levels of anxiety, depression, and develop feelings of security.

Overall, having a social support network can buffer against the impact of various mental and physical illnesses.

How Can I Improve My Feelings of Social Isolation?

All these researched based findings are great – but how exactly do we combat our feelings of social isolation and loneliness during a pandemic? One way we can do so is by learning and understanding what exactly we need, socially speaking.

There are various kinds of social support that people in your social network can provide. Depending on your personal needs, you may need a certain kind of support depending on the situation you’re in.

The 4 Kinds of Social Support

Emotional Support  

You may need this kind of support when you’re feeling lonely or when you need a shoulder to cry on. Someone in your social network offering emotional support will listen to your problems, empathize with you and give you a hug (virtual for now) if needed.

Instrumental Support  

This refers to your immediate needs that your loved ones may take care of. For instance, they give you a ride to work when your car breaks down. Or they help you come with solutions to a problem you're having.

Esteem Support

This kind of support is offered through words of encouragement. Your co-worker may praise your strengths and increase your confidence so that you get a boost in your self-esteem.

Informational Support  

Your social network can provide you with valuable advice, guidance, or mentorship. When faced with a big decision, you turn to a mentor or friend to help you process and work through the details.

Adjusting Your Social Support to Fit a Self-Isolation Lifestyle

Now that you’ve read about all the different kinds of social support, you may realize that you don’t have to see someone in person to receive or offer social support.

Support can come from a friend, a family member, a colleague, or from your peer in an online yoga class!

While you may not be able to give your best friend a hug after she’s had a tough day at work, you can empathize and listen to her concerns, and help support her with a few words of encouragement.

The same way, if you need support, maybe you can reach out to a family member who you look up to and they can offer you guidance through a video chat.

Yes, this will be different. But instead of despairing in what we don’t have, let's try to focus on what we do have.

When You Should Seek Professional Help

By ignoring feels of loneliness, you may end making them worse, leading to more severe issues. Additionally, social isolation and loneliness often can be symptom of a greater problem, including depression and anxiety.

What can social withdrawal look like? You may be avoiding contact with friends or family through the phone or social media. Or you don’t feel like responding to anyone’s texts or messages. You’d rather be left alone, and not have to talk to anyone.

Reach out for support if you're experiencing social withdrawal and any of the following symptoms that are interfering with your daily life:  

Excessive worrying

Low mood that lasts for most of the day and occurs most days

Trouble sleeping

Trouble eating

Feeling angry and irritable

Muscle tension and body pain

Panic attacks

Social Distance Does Not Mean Social Isolation

If you’ve taken one thing from this post, hopefully it’s this: just because we’re practicing social distancing, doesn’t mean we have to feel social isolation.

You can still maintain your social relationships from a distance. Yes, it’ll be different. And yes, it may slightly uncomfortable. But like all things, you will get used to it. That is the beauty of human nature, we are adaptive creatures.

Maintaining your social relationships may be one of the best ways for you to maintain your mental health during the age of social isolation.

What are some things you are doing that has helped you maintain your social relationships while isolating over the past month?

Use this time as a reminder to be kinder to each other.

We are struggling in our own ways to varying degrees and kindness is the glue that will hold us together through this period of our lives.

As always, drop me a line and let me know how things are going for you. I would love that!

Until next time,

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services