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Back To Blog > “No man is an island” - COVID-19 and social isolation


This post is by guest blogger Anna Fialkowska

Loneliness & Mental Health

The topic of loneliness, its effect on individuals’ lives and preventative methods have become one of the top researched subjects over last few months. In the current situation of a lockdown, individuals are more likely to experience loneliness than over last few decades. Guidelines received from governing bodies encourage us to ‘stay at home’, ‘stay safe’ and to keep distance from others. However, what does ‘being lonely’ actually mean? Do we all experience loneliness when we are exposed to social isolation and how can we prevent negative feelings associated with isolation? Let’s look at some of the available data and current studies to answer these questions.

One of the definitions of loneliness proposed by Tiwari (2013) describes loneliness as a “subjective, negative feeling related to deficient social relations”. Its subjective character has been highlighted by a substantial number of sociologists and psychologists, who stand in opposition to the view of loneliness as a state of solitude or being alone. Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely, and actually it may have a cathartic effect, especially among those who are highly socially involved in their everyday lives. On the other hand, being connected may not always lead to satisfied social needs and individuals surrounded by others may still experience feelings of loneliness.

Nevertheless, in most cases, prolonged isolation leads to negative psychological consequences. According to the studies investigating the psychological and social predictors of depressive symptomatology, loneliness is one of its main etiological factors (Mullins & Dugan, 1990; Shaver & Brennan,1991). Hence, loneliness can cause depressive symptoms and depression itself can lead to further isolation. The more isolated the individual becomes the more severe symptoms become, activating a vicious cycle, in which negative events reinforce each other, which can have highly detrimental psychological consequences on an individual. Therefore, measurements to identify those at the highest risk of social isolation, particularly during the lockdown, should be applied to society to help combat depression.

Social Media & It’s Applicability During the Lockdown

According to the research, elderly individuals are highly likely to experience loneliness and often suffer its psychological consequences (Thomas, 2015; Victor & Yang, 2012). However, a survey of more than 2,000 adults living in the United Kingdom revealed that 31 percent of young adults (18-24y) reported feeling lonely often or all the time, in comparison to 17 per cent of adults over 55 (Young, 2019). The current findings are highly concerning.  Specialists believe that young generations are becoming immersed in “the world of social media”, which is often based on the quantity but not a quality of developed relationships. Adolescents are becoming less empathic and less capable of developing meaningful relationships, which in turn may lead to further isolation or determination to ‘hide behind the screen’. In the current situation of a lockdown, many of us have been relying on social media to keep up with professional and private social interactions which otherwise would be unfeasible. Some of us even report to be more socially active due to the current restrains, associated with more available time and reinforced by the need for social contact caused by its limited accessibility. Therefore, the impact of social media on the level of reported loneliness is highly controversial. There are two sides to the virtual reality; on one hand it can strengthen our sense of belonging and connectedness, while on the other hand may lead to isolation, lack of high-quality relationships and impaired social empathy.

Loneliness & Increased Altruism

Besides the significant impact of the current pandemic on the economy, the dynamic of people’s lives, and its detrimental effect on mental health for many individuals, there appears to be some real positives of the current situation. Those who live with others report enjoying more opportunity to spend time with family, to exercise and to engage in new hobbies. Additionally, there are numerous reports of increases in altruistic behaviours, defined as selfless acts that contribute to the wellbeing of others. With health care professionals putting their lives at risk while striving to save the lives of others, a new appreciation appears to have developed throughout the UK. This trend of greater altruism has also been seen within the wider population across the world, with a substantial number of those who became involved in supporting those at the higher risk, simply by engaging in food delivery, medication supply or by providing psychological support to others. Many of us have become much more empathic and reported strengthened sensitivity to the suffering of others, with acts such as Clap for Carers aiding in reinforcing this with gratitude. Experienced empathy has been shown to predict altruistic behaviour in the past, predicting a 40% increase in sharing behaviours in one prominent study (Klimecki et al 2016). It is this type of behaviour that is one of the biggest positives of the lockdown. Human beings are social creatures and studies have found our brains crave social interactions. Loneliness in this instance prompts individuals to renew connections, with this feeling seen as a “built in cue for us to reconnect with one another” (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). When we are deprived of those innate needs, this unquestionably impacts our homeostatic equilibrium. Altruistic behaviours have been shown to decrease loneliness by providing a sense of belonging to an individual and in encouraging these behaviours, we can combat depression.

There is no doubt in the aptness of Merton’s statement that “no man is an island” and that we are all dependent on mutual respect and cooperation. With the lockdown now easing in the UK, only time will tell if society will continue to gather and cooperate or compete with limited empathy or appreciation for one’s neighbours. Let’s hope it’s the former!

About Anna Fialkowska

Anna Fialkowska is a Trainee Health Psychologist, is completing her doctoral training at the University of the West of England and currently works as a Heath Improvement Practitioner. She has worked within the field of mental health dysfunction and cognitive rehabilitation over the last six years. Her main areas of research include the development of behaviour change interventions, the impact of stress on individuals’ physical health and the effect of chronic conditions on psychological well-being.

References:

Hawkley L. C., Cacioppo J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Ann. Behav. Med. 40, 218–227. 10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

Klimecki, O., Mayer, S., Jusyte, A. et al. Empathy promotes altruistic behavior in economic interactions. Sci Rep 6, 31961 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep31961

Mullins, L.C., & Dugan, E. (1990). The influence of depression, and family and friendship relations, on residents’ loneliness in congregate housing. The Gerontologist, 30, 377-384.

Shaver, P.R., & Brennan, K.A. (1991). Measures of depression and loneliness. In: J.P. Robinson, P.R. Shaver, & L.S. Wrightman (Eds.), Measures of Personality and Social Psychological Attitudes. Measures of Social Psychological Attitudes (Vol. 1, pp. 195-289) San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Thomas, J. (2015). Insights into loneliness, older people and well-being, 2015. Retrieved from: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160106033522/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_418058.pdf.

Tiwari, S.C. (2013). Loneliness: A disease?. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4), 320-322.

Victor, C.R., & Yang, K. (2012). The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2),85–104.

Young, S. (2019). Young people more likely to feel lonely than older generations, study finds. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/loneliness-young-people-yougov-friendship-adults-a9133706.html

Lonely

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