Social isolation has long been associated with adverse neurological effects. In this brave new world, we’ve found creative ways to adapt to increased remote working and reduced social interaction. Video call meetings and Zoom family quizzes have helped to meet our need for connection. There is no doubt about it, staying cooped up within four walls, with limited face-to-face contact, has been tough. For some of us, especially the introverts among us, it may be tempting to remain a hermit: sheltered from connection. Yet – our brains are hard-wired for social contact and extended isolation eventually takes a toll on our well-being.
In this blog, we look at the importance of remaining in touch with others and the positive role that social interaction plays in optimal Wellness. We consider the neurological impact of isolation and how you can take practical steps to nourish your nervous system through socialisation.
Evolution and Social Connection
We rely on connection for our very survival. Think about a small baby. Indeed, try to visualise yourself as the tiny infant you once were. You wouldn’t have survived without someone to ensure your basic needs are met. That you had food, water, warmth, and safety, as well as someone who connected with you. Even if those needs were met, it is unlikely you would have adequately developed if you also didn’t have someone to meet – at least some of the time – your need to be seen, held, and emotionally nurtured. Social isolation during childhood is linked to multiple health issues in adulthood. For this reason, evolution has ensured that babies have a natural alarm system, in the form of a piercing cry, that helps them achieve connection and avoid the very real danger that isolation would bring. It is very hard to not respond to a crying baby as we are hard-wired to do so!
The Painful Legacy of Isolation in Extreme Circumstances
Sadly, the shocking images that emerged from Romanian Orphanages in the early 90s, following the Romanian Revolution, showed the heart-breaking impact that both physical neglect and deprivation from human contact had on children.
Distressing photos of the Orphanages showed row-upon-row of children tied to beds, left to lie in their own urine with extremely limited contact with any adult, no one to take responsibility for their “care”. Many of these children rocked back and forth as a way of self-soothing in the face of such limited contact. Sadly, for many of these children, even when the world became aware of their situation, and they were finally provided with loving and attentive foster care, most of them still experienced developmental delays, along with social, emotional, and cognitive problems during their lives. Common issues included difficulty engaging with others and forming relationships. For those children who had spent considerable stretches of their first years in the Orphanages, they were three to four times more likely to struggle emotionally as adults.
Even in less extreme situations, isolation takes its toll upon children’s neurological development. 2014 research shows that socially isolated children tend to have lower subsequent educational attainment and are more likely to suffer psychologically in adulthood.
Thriving Relies on Human Connection
So – it is obvious that children need social interaction to thrive. And, as adults, relationships and connection remain essential human needs that require satisfaction if we are to live rich and meaningful lives. In the 1950s, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow described the different needs that we all have as humans. He was clear that in addition to physical needs, we all have psychological needs, including the need for supportive relationships and human connection.
For this reason, the lockdown restrictions were difficult for us as social creatures. Many people pointed out that the lockdown language of “social isolation” should be more correctly termed “physical isolation” as people found creative ways to connect remotely. Family Zoom calls quickly became a regular feature of weekly life for many, to maintain some form of connection and minimise the effects of isolation.
For those living alone, lockdown presented a huge challenge – especially when any work contact was also now remote. The National Bureau of Economic Research recognised that for remote employees who also lived alone, “their happiness was reduced” – reductions that are made more severe by losses in income and stress from the workplace. Higher amounts of time spent remained significantly negative throughout the study. The conclusion is obvious, loneliness makes you unhappy.
Unsurprisingly, social isolation is very detrimental to our health. A 2015 study found that social isolation heightens physical health risks just as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It also showed that it can be twice as harmful to our physical and mental health than even obesity. This should put into perspective the severity of the matter. Adding to that, highly stressed individuals have been shown to develop worse habits continuously. This means that your pre-existing stress contributes to making you more stressed in the future. Suddenly, a previously small problem like working from a disorganised space can become unbearably stressful.
While many people are now able to return to working alongside colleagues in face-to-face contexts, it can still be hard to meet and socialise in the flesh. And for those of us who do not have a say in the matter, having a clean and organized home office is important.
Oxytocin and Social Connection
Physical, face-to-face connection supports the release of the bonding and immune system strengthening hormone, Oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes termed “the cuddle hormone” in that it is generated when we experience physical touch and connection. In babies, we have observed a profoundly beneficial surge of Oxytocin when they experience skin-to-skin contact with a caregiver, as well as when they breastfeed. To test these benefits out, offer someone you like a warm hug!
However, if hugging is not your thing, panic not – you don’t need to get all “touchy-feely” to benefit from the Oxytocin effect. A 2017 study found that social laughter helps to release pleasurable hormones and supports social bonds between humans. Shared laughter in the company of others is a fantastic stress buster and an important reason why we still need to socialise
Think Quality Rather than Quantity
It is, of course, possible to feel isolated in a crowd. To be physically surrounded by people, yet also feel as if we have no one who understands us at a deep level. You can, and perhaps do, have hundreds of superficial online “friends” yet lack the experience of deep and intimate connection. That feeling that someone “gets” you and loves you just as you are. In other words, a move away from the experience of isolation involves a move towards a commitment to fostering deep and meaningful connections – think quality rather than quantity.
The Takeaways – Connection in Action
So – how can you increase your sense of deep connection? What practical steps can you put in place to limit the neurological impact of isolation? Working at fostering good quality relationships and finding ways to connect is very important. You can do this by:
Reaching out to a friend or family member – ask how they are?
Take up a new hobby or sport that can help you to connect with others.
Book tickets for a local comedy show for you and your friends.
Take time to speak to someone face-to-face each day, or speak to them on the phone, rather than messaging. You’ll benefit from the increased connection of hearing their voice and seeing their face.