Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Mental Health, What you need to consider following COVID-19

Original Publishing Date:
July 7, 2021
Last Update:
July 26, 2023

Social Isolation and Loneliness, The Important Difference

Connection with others has been on the minds of mental health providers, neuroscientists, and those that run social media companies for more than a decade. Prior to COVID, there were concerns about society’s mental health, the use of social media and its effect on real social connection. Now 18 months into a global pandemic, reasonable alarm about the effects of COVID shut-downs, separation from loved ones and time away from classrooms are at the front of everyone’s mind.

Social isolation can be measured by specific information. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the perception of social isolation. The feeling of being alone.

It is important to note that demonstrable social isolation is not the same as the feeling of loneliness. Social isolation can be measured by specific information; for example, if we had someone go into a room by themselves with no technology, connection to the internet, or social interactions for 24 hours. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the perception of social isolation.

This accounts for individual personality. Someone who is objectively alone may not necessarily feel very lonely; whereas, someone who is objectively well connected and social, might still feel very lonely.

Social Isolation and Loneliness, The Effects on the Brain

Both social isolation and loneliness have been connected with decreased cognitive abilities, vulnerability to psychiatric disorders, and specific changes in the brain and body in the areas of memory and inflammation. This trend leads researchers to believe that social isolation and perceived loneliness can lead to early onset dementia, increased illnesses, and decreased mortality. Loneliness specifically is also associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A meta-analysis of over 50 studies demonstrated similar themes; however, some of the results were in direct conflict with each other. So far, there has not been conclusive evidence of the direct effects of social isolation and loneliness on physical health and mental health. As of the publishing of this article, information from the COVID-19 pandemic is still being gathered and analyzed.

For those interested in the biomechanics of social isolation and loneliness we can look to these brain structures and areas of the body:

  • Prefrontal Cortex: region of the brain that is important for decision making, social behavior, understanding consequences, and contextualizing situations
  • Humans: reduced brain volumes in the prefrontal cortex
  • Rodents: disregulated signaling in the prefrontal cortex
  • Hippocampus: brain structure associated with learning and memory
  • Humans and animals: reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF- a protein related to stress regulation and memory) and smaller hippocampi
  • Humans: incidences of changes to the dentate gyrus up to 7 percent loss in size (provides information to the hippocampus, the first region where all sensory information merge to form unique representations and memories that bind stimuli together)
  • Animals: higher cortisol levels (a stress hormone that high concentrations in the hippocampus can impair memory encoding and recall
  • Amygdala: brain structure responsible for detecting threat and regulating emotions
  • Humans: correlation between the size of a person’s social network and the volume of their amygdala
  • Humans: amygdala tends to be smaller in people who feel lonely
  • Gray Matter: brain structure responsible for detecting threat and regulating emotions
  • Humans: overall smaller gray matter volumes in a variety of brain regions, including the hippocampus and amygdala, in those that scored high on the loneliness scale
  • Cytokines: inflammatory signaling molecules (interleukin-6)
  • Humans and animals: increased circulation of molecules in those who were socially isolated
  • Humans: increase in pathways to detect inflammation molecules for those who felt lonely
  • Default Mode Network: brain regions involved in reminiscing, imagination, future planning, and creative thought; activated when humans are not engaged in the outside world (paying attention, being present)
  • Humans: increased intra-network connectivity and brain volume in the default mode network for those who experienced loneliness
  • Dopaminergic Midbrain Neurons: involved in cravings and reward
  • Humans: increased activity of the dopaminergic midbrain neurons when socially isolated and shown imagery of socializing activities; participants craved to socialize similarly to craving food when hungry

Post COVID Recovery, Healing Social Isolation and Loneliness

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global, collective trauma event and must be treated as such.

“Respect the beast” is often a phrase this author uses when giving talks and working with clients. The entire nation and global community is experiencing a collective traumatic event. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global, collective trauma event and must be treated as such. Recovery from COVID and the shifts or accommodations we have made since lockdowns began, should be treated as an opportunity for post-traumatic growth.

It is vital to emphasize that this is not over yet. In particular, those that are in vaccine deserts, immunocompromised, lost loved ones, or read any daily news report, are still experiencing the traumatic fall-out of this pandemic.

Not unlike social isolation and loneliness, trauma also effects brain structures like the amygdala. The amygdala is the boss of understanding and interpreting threat, as well as, helps regulate and respond to positive and negative emotions. When enough threat is triggered in the brain stem (where the amygdala is located) our ability to connect with our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for adding situation context, rational thought, and problem solving, becomes limited.

The following are several suggestions for healing and recovering after the COVID pandemic, or if you are feeling socially isolated or lonely:

1. Grieve

Whether you lost a loved one or did not, grief is a central part of the human experience when going through something as challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling our feelings is how we heal. Recovery and healing cannot come from refusing to feel emotions and pushing them away.

Recovery from COVID and the shifts or accommodations we have made since lockdowns began, should be treated as an opportunity for post-traumatic growth.

2. Turn off the news, or at least read the entire article

News headlines are designed to activate the brainstem, specifically our fight and flight responses. Unfortunately, modern technology and paywalls lead to many people only reading the headlines. In order to give your body a chance to recover and to heal from the pandemic or to experience less symptoms of depression and anxiety, either skip the news section all-together, or read the entire article.

3. Find real social connections

Even if you are someone who identifies themselves as an introvert and found some benefit to the “COVID lifestyle”, humans need social interactions and connectedness. This does include digital connections over video chat and meetings, or over the phone. In addition, limit your time on social media. Studies show that the longer we scroll the more anxious and depressed we become. This causes us to isolate further due to social anxiety.

4. Think positive, even if it does not feel true

It is not a threat to force yourself to have a positive or rational thought. Doing so, even when it does not feel true, promotes the release of positive chemicals in the brain associated with wellbeing and increased immunity. Using thought discipline to think a neutral or positive thought helps neurons fire and wire together, acting as a protective mechanism. Activating and rehearsing alternative beliefs or positive thoughts stimulates the prefrontal cortex of the brain which helps with problem solving, seeing things in context, and decision making.

5. Play

No matter your age or maturity level, all humans need a time to play. It involves the free flow of actions and spontaneity that promotes a better sense of wellbeing. Play is associated with lower levels of stress, improved brain function, increased creativity, improved relationships with others, and feelings of energy and youthfulness.

EMDR is the most globally recognized intervention for trauma recovery

6. Engage with culture

Increased cognitive engagement, regardless of a person’s levels of social engagement, has been shown to have positive and counteractive effects of social isolation and feelings of loneliness.  This was found with those that visited museums, attended concerts and operas. It is important to note that the same findings did not apply to attending the cinema or watching movies.

If these activities continue to feel unsafe due to new COVID variants, there are several ways to increase cognitive engagement from home, including learning a new language, attending online concerts or other online cultured events. Reading has also been shown to increase empathy towards others and online social book clubs curb a sense of isolation through bonding.

7. Participate in EMDR Therapy or other Mental Health intervention

EMDR is the most globally recognized intervention for trauma recovery alongside TCBT. If your efforts to heal from the events of COVID have fallen short you may benefit from speaking with one of our counselors. Please contact us to set up an appointment to start your healing recovery!

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Rachael Miller, MA, LCPC, NCC, EAC, EMDR-C

Rachael is a Board Certified, Licensed Clinical Therapist and the owner of Chicago Counseling. She is known for her work both nationally and globally for creating dozens of innovative community programs, education seminars, and intervention optimization projects.

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