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Human connection is a basic need, on a par with food and water. A lack of adequate social interaction correlates with adverse health conditions ranging from impaired immunity to accelerated cognitive decline, and significantly increases the risk of early mortality.

Social disconnection also diminishes emotional well-being. Feeling alone or unsupported can compound existing life stressors and lead to feelings of worthlessness and rejection, making us even more inclined to isolate — a dangerous cycle that can lead to depression, what Andrew Solomon calls “a disease of loneliness.”

Writing in his Pulitzer Prize–nominated book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Solomon notes that “It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”

Depression has long been one of the world’s most prevalent mental-health disorders. While its hallmark symptom — social isolation — became universal almost overnight thanks to COVID-19 quarantine, the issue has been building for some time.

The Epidemic Before the Epidemic

Loneliness has been a growing concern among mental- and public-health experts well before social distancing. In 2017 the American Psychological Association (APA) deemed loneliness a greater threat to public health than obesity.

The APA’s concern lies not only in the severity but the scale of the condition. In a 2018 study, nearly half of 20,000 American adults indicated that they sometimes or always feel alone, while two in five said they struggle with a lack of meaningful relationships.

When and how did this happen?

Demographically, we’ve been steadily transforming into a more solitary society. With rates of both marriage and childbearing decreasing for several decades, today more American adults live alone than at any time in the past half-century.

Being alone is not the same thing as feeling alone. An individual can be single yet feel connected to friends, family, and community, just as another individual may struggle with loneliness while living with roommates, a partner, or kids.

Loneliness is a “subjective state that can affect anyone,” says psychologist Louise Hawkley, PhD, a senior research scientist with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), who studies loneliness and social isolation. In normal times, Hawkley explains, the feeling can serve as a reminder of that basic human need — much like a growling stomach signals hunger. “But when you can’t act on this,” she warns, “the risk FOR loneliness increases.”

Pre-pandemic, we could chat with colleagues over lunch, attend church services, or simply meet a friend for coffee to satisfy our need for social connection. But in March 2020, those interactions were suddenly limited — and the impact on our mental health was evident immediately.

NORC has been collecting data on Americans’ emotional well-being for years, and it began studying the effects of COVID on mental health soon after the nation went into quarantine. Its first wave of research from May 2020 showed a sharp increase in loneliness compared with data collected two years prior: 52 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely, anxious, or depressed in 2020 compared with 39 percent in 2018.

Setting aside the health and economic uncertainty spurred by the pandemic, simply maintaining 6 feet of space from other people has taken a toll. An April 2020 study found that 60 percent of adults were experiencing touch deprivation, and that these individuals were more likely to struggle with a range of psychological symptoms, including depression.

Living with other people can be somewhat of a buffer, but it also brings its own set of challenges.

“Due to social distancing, many of my clients no longer spend face-to-face time with social support outside of whomever they live with,” says Kelly Ryan, LPCC, a Minneapolis-based psychotherapist. “In some cases, that’s led to an increase in interpersonal conflict within the home, partially because of the close quarters and limited outlets.”

Still, we adjust and adapt.

“The biggest increases in loneliness seemed to happen early in the pandemic, as physical distancing was being instituted,” explains Hawkley. “Soon after, levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety declined, though not to pre-pandemic levels.”

Technology: A Buffer, Not a Cure

Tech has become a lifeline in quarantine, enabling us to safely order groceries, consult with our doctors, and, for many Americans, continue to work while away from the office. It has also allowed us to maintain contact with loved ones who don’t live within our homes.

Yet our outsized reliance on digital connection may be generating a new appreciation for in-person interaction.

Talk of “Zoom fatigue” began just months into social distancing. A June 2020 study found that most people who began working from home in the pandemic said they want to return to the office at least part-time when it’s safe to do so, largely because they miss the interpersonal interactions.

Zoom simply doesn’t satisfy our hunger for community. Ryan describes a client who launched a support group for fathers of children with disabilities early in 2020. They met in person a few times before the pandemic hit, then attempted to keep meeting online but found it less useful.

While tech may not be the cure for loneliness, it can at least serve as a buffer — so long as it’s properly used.

Studies have demonstrated that certain forms of digital connection boost well-being more than others. Texting with close friends or intimate partners — that is, those with whom we have meaningful real-life relationships — delivers more mental-health benefits than posting on social media.

Similarly, older adults may derive greater emotional benefits from their digital interactions because they tend to use technology to maintain relationships with people they already know rather than engaging with strangers.

“Those who are substituting online relationships for real relationships, unsurprisingly, don’t see a reduction in loneliness and, in fact, may actually see a deterioration relative to people who use online interactions to supplement their face-to-face relationships,” Hawkley surmises.

This article originally appeared as “The Effects of Loneliness and Isolation” in the April 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC, is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Minneapolis and an Experience Life contributing editor.

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