Staying Connected: Some practical points on how to protect your wellbeing
As part of the King’s Inns 2020 Fitness Challenge, we asked Dr Michelle Killian, an expert in stress management and wellbeing, to give her thoughts on how social isolation and loneliness impacts on wellbeing, and what we can do about it.
We are a social species
Humans are a social species. It is also this capacity that has helped us rise to the top of the evolutionary pyramid. Contrary to popular belief our success as a species is not because we battered the competition to death but rather because we were better than other species at co–operating. The ability to collaborate not only enabled us to exploit opportunities by pooling together resources, but also by being part of a group we could better protect ourselves from other predators.
Social isolation and stress
Loneliness forces us to seek out others and it is hypothesized that the reason for this is to ensure our survival. While you might not die from loneliness itself, it can greatly increase your risk of premature death, by as much as 20%. In fact some estimates say the risk is comparable to obesity an smoking. But why? Chronic loneliness increases levels of cortisol, an important marker for stress, leading to increased inflammation and lowered immunity, which also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke. The link between social isolation and stress makes evolutionary sense. The stress mechanism enables our bodies to mobilise energy from where it is stored in the body, so that we can get glucose to the muscles and brain more quickly. Being able to think on your feet and make decisions quickly is a distinct advantage in a hostile environment where you can easily become lunch! For our ancestors living on the savannah, being part of a group made then less vulnerable to predators. If you wandered away from your tribe and found yourself alone, you were much more likely to be set upon by other tribes or get eaten by some hungry tiger. Our modern environments may be very different from that of our ancestors, but our bodies are still playing catchup in terms of our ability to adapt. Social distancing measures introduced because of the Covid19 pandemic leaves us feeling isolated and vulnerable, like a solitary being in a vast savannah.
The ambiguity, uncertainty and lack of control resulting from the pandemic leaves us feeling vulnerable, activating our stress response.
Social connections are critical not only for your physical health but also your emotional and psychological wellbeing. The world is more connected than ever before yet ironically more people are experiencing loneliness.
It is at times like this that we most need others. Ancestorial cave dwellers would have huddled together offering each other warmth and security. Family, community and church provide a sense of solidary when faced with difficulties. Even during the war people found comfort in being able to socialize. Maintaining social connections and a sense of community can help mitigate against the negative effects of social isolation.
Social connections are critical not only for your physical health but also your emotional and psychological wellbeing. The world is more connected than ever before yet ironically more people are experiencing loneliness. And it is not just older people, rates of loneliness amongst young adults are increasing too. Some studies link this to the increased use of social media. Aside from how comparing ourselves to others on Facebook might make us feel, online relationships tend to be based on weak ties which makes them more fragile. Moreover, social connections in networking sites like Facebook are mostly about you, whereas authentic relationships require greater participation from others. And while many people focus on the number of connections they have as evidence of their sociability, it is the quality of your relationships that really matters. Two or three real friends that you know you can rely upon are worth more than having 250 likes on your Facebook feed.
If you are in the company of people you feel disconnected from you are more likely to experience loneliness. Also, because of the stigma associated with loneliness many people are unwilling to admit it to others.
The company of others
It is also important to distinguish between being alone and being lonely. ‘Being alone’ describes the absence of other people whereas ‘being lonely’ is a negative state, characterised by sadness. This also means that you can be alone without necessarily feeling lonely while conversely you can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people. This also implies that the quality of relationships matters. If you are in the company of people you feel disconnected from you are more likely to experience loneliness. Also, because of the stigma associated with loneliness many people are unwilling to admit it to others. This is why it is important to be mindful of others who might be experiencing loneliness but are afraid to ask for help.
Helping to overcome social isolation and loneliness
So how might we overcome the problems associated with social isolation and loneliness. Below are 5 simple steps for helping to maintain those important social connections that can buffer us from the negative impact of social isolation.
- Prioritise people you genuinely care about and schedule them into your diary to keep in contact.
- Make a greater effort to call or meet friends and family rather than relying on texts.
- Participate in groups and community projects where you can connect with people who live near you.
- Be sensitive to how others might be feeling. Reach out and offer help to people who may be at risk of loneliness.
- Adopt a pet or offer to walk someone’s dog.
The importance of social connection cannot be underestimated. While social networking sites and texting are valuable tools for helping to maintain our social connections, they should not be regarded as a substitute for the face–to–face interaction and physical proximity that are necessary for us to thrive as social beings. By neglecting the innate need to connect you are not only more likely to become lonely, but you are also putting your health at risk.