Effects of Social Isolation – Distress of Disconnection
As the number of outbreaks of coronavirus increases, the authorities are increasingly taking measures to limit the spread of the virus. We have all been encouraged to ‘socially distance’ so we can reduce the spread of the Corona Virus. And while social distance can protect us physically from the coronavirus, does it emotionally isolate us? And how will all this isolation affect our mental health or overall mood? As a counsellor and a psychotherapist, I am keenly aware that the distress of disconnection, whether within ourselves or with the others is one of the main reasons to seek a professional help. My colleagues all over the world agree that the precautions of isolation can have a psychological cost.
To stay physically healthy, we are doing exactly what will not be good for our psychology later. Being alone is interpreted in our mammalian brain as ‘Danger’, and Being Connected is interpreted as ‘Safe’. Especially when we are in a period of threat or danger, it is natural to want to interact with others. It is known that hugs and other forms of affection that require physical contact are particularly important for our mental health as they reassure us by lowering the levels of cortisol, a "stress hormone".
Though our mammalian DNA is coded for connection, most of us live in ‘a tribes of two’, (if we are lucky), many of us live alone. Isolation can lead to fear, loneliness, depression, decreased immune system. Social distance is related to the malfunction of the immune system, which poses risks of infection. The findings came from a study of people in quarantine and provided some initial information on the impact of social distance on mental health. A recent review of published studies in the medical journal The Lancet showed confusion, anger and symptoms of post-traumatic stress as potential psychological effects of quarantine.
Equally important is whether the quarantine is voluntary or involuntary. If the authorities do not adequately explain that this mandatory process is for the general good, we feel we have less control over the situation and quarantine can be characterized as punishment. People want to be responsible for their activities.
Millennials are also vulnerable. Although most have a large following on social media, many of them report feeling isolated and this is due to the fact that the majority of their interpersonal contacts are usually in the school or a workplace. They have begun to confuse Twitter and Instagram with true friendship, which is far from reality.
Unfortunately, the stress, hurts our ability to cope, and compromise our immune system. According to the American Medical Association, 80 to 90% of disease is stress-related. That means that if you don’t want you or your loved ones to get sick, become better at handling your stress — since stress greatly lessens your immunity.”
Dr. Andrew Goliszek Ph.D, writes in Psychology today: “The ability to fend off illness and disease depends on several factors, some of which are beyond our control, but the way we react to stress and the general health of our immune system are things we can influence. If we’re not able to change our response to stressors, we’ll find ourselves in a constant hormonal battle that will lead to serious health issues like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The brain and the immune system are in constant communication in his delicate balance that can be disrupted by any kind of physical or emotional stress.”
By being faced with a tremendous challenge, like the pandemic spread of the virus, we are losing our ability to find meaning in our (decreased) daily activities.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, gives a lesson on spiritual survival. Terrible as it was, his experiences in the concentration camp reinforced the ideas that he was working on: Life is not primarily a quest of pleasure as Freud believed, or power, as Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his own life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless: we give our suffering meaning by the way we respond to it. These three axioms (he had courageously helped others in the camp, by sharing his food rations and raising their moral, and kept his hope high that he would reunite with his beloved wife) had helped him personally to survive the Holocaust and to complete his work.
Online Connection as Antidote to the Distress of Disconnection
Attachment Theory confirms that we need each other to survive. Connection is in our strength. And though, we need to ‘social distance’, so we can help prevent and slow the virus spreading, we do not need to give up connection.
During these times we are more and more turning to connecting on line. This does not mean that it is impossible to maintain meaningful relationships online. Quality counts more than quantity. Focus on few relationships can be more useful in times of need. Social distance and other coronavirus-related precautions push us to consider when treatment is worse than the disease.
In these stressful times of this global epidemic, with all the unknowns we are facing, it becomes even more important to know we are not alone, and that we can rely on others.
During the devastating fire that destroyed big parts of California last year, we saw how important the need for connection and the community to support each other became so crucial. Secure Attachments help with Stress in Times of Adversity. What we saw across Northern California communities is how bonded and available communities can become for each other.
The same question that I explore with couples as a relationship therapist: A.R.E, (Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged), YOU there for me? Is answered with a resonating YES in our communities?
In my work with couples who started the therapy before the quarantine and managed to find the way to communicate more effectively, this decision could make all the difference now that they are literally ‘quarantined’ together. It is important to remember that we’re all in this together. Let’s give each other get-out-of-jail-free passes when our responses to mundane matters seem a bit over the top. Let’s let the small things slide. Let’s use this down time to find new and creative ways to connect rather than blame each other.
Reach out to family, colleagues, friends, and associates. Reach out to your therapist, reach out and connect in whatever format that is possible. Sometimes, even one person, the one that makes us feel understood, accepted and safe to be ourselves is enough to make all the difference.
Alexandra Kovacevic Konstantatou
Counsellor & Psychotherapist, (Individuals, Couples and Groups),MSc Strathclyde University, U.K.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, S. Johnson
Attachment Theory, J. Bowlby
Man’s Search for Meaning, V. Frankl