How the Growing Social Isolation in the U.S. Impacts Mental Health

The stats don’t lie: Social isolation is on the rise. More than 1 in 4 Americans live alone—the highest rate ever recorded.1 The percentage of adults who are married is also declining, as is community involvement (measured through things like volunteerism and religious affiliation).1

One of the most significant factors impacting social isolation has been the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing guidelines impacting all Americans. With the dramatic changes in social interaction and community involvement seen in 2020-2021, the long-term impact of isolation on mental health has become a growing concern for many health care professionals.

What’s the difference between “loneliness” and “isolation?”

One important note: Isolation should not be equated with loneliness. Loneliness is more than the absence of human interaction. It is characterized by a person’s satisfaction with their level of human connectedness. While a degree of social isolation is not always a bad thing (we don’t have similarly negative connotations with the term “solitude” for example), loneliness speaks to lacking a social connection that is integral to human physical and mental well-being.

However, isolation can, and often does, heavily factor into a person’s sense of loneliness, as social interaction plays an important role in social connectedness.

How Social Isolation Impacts Mental and Physical Health

The side effects of isolation are a combination of behavioral, biological, and psychological issues. For example, people who are isolated may suffer from a lack of social support and encouragement that contributes to a “lonely” mindset and subsequent slide into unhealthy habits.

Recent studies have taught us some fascinating and concerning new facts about the effects of loneliness and social isolation:

  • Loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, interfere with sleep, and augment depression or anxiety (Valtorta, Kanaan, Gilbody, Ronzi, & Hanratty, 2016).
  • Loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015).
  • Perceived social isolation is linked with impaired executive function, cognitive decline, and increased risk of dementia (Hawkley & Capitanio, 2015) (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020).
  • Impaired immunity has been linked to the long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling caused by loneliness (Hawkley & Capitanio, 2015).
  • Poor social relationships are associated with an increased risk of stroke or coronary artery disease (Valtorta, Kanaan, Gilbody, Ronzi, & Hanratty, 2016).

How to Help Mitigate Social Isolation & Loneliness

There are strategies to help mitigate the impact of social isolation. Our app Mindboost is a daily mental health tool designed to build positive habits and increase resilience. Users can access our AI-powered chatbot for daily check-ins and assessments.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in many parts of the world, here are some additional practical steps to mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation in practical ways:

  • Begin in the home – While there is no one-size-fits all intervention, the most important place to begin fostering connection is in the home. If you have children, teach the importance of connectedness by demonstrating close, supportive relationships. Practice intentionality in the relationships you have with your partner, roommates, parents, or others with whom you share your home. View relationships as a gift to cultivate, not take for granted.
  • Engage in community and social groups – Look for opportunities to participate or serve in your local community. Volunteer at a local church, school, or animal shelter. Join or sponsor neighborhood events such as potlucks or block parties, or form a neighborhood softball league.
  • Be health conscious – Maintain healthy habits, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and engaging in daily physical activity.
  • Seek professional treatment – If you find yourself struggling with loneliness, be proactive in seeking treatment. One of the best interventions currently available is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a form of psychological treatment that seeks to correct faulty thinking patterns and unhelpful behavior that may be contributing to a psychological issue. According to a meta-analysis reviewing 77 studies of loneliness intervention programs, using CBT to treat negative thoughts about self-worth was more successful in reducing loneliness that any of the other interventions studied.2 At Mindboost, we leverage a wide range of existing psychological modalities, including CBT, to provide users with the best care possible. Click here for a full list of psychological modalities used.

Works Cited

  1. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015, March). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Association for Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.
  2. Masi, C. M., Chen, H.-Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Sage Journals, 219-266.
  3. Alcaraz, K., Eddens, K. S., Blase, J. L., Diver, R. W., Patel, A. V., Teras, L. R., . . . Gapstur, S. M. (2019, January). Social Isolation and Mortality in US Black and White Men and Women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 188(1), 102-109.
  4. Hawkley, L. C., & Capitanio, J. P. (2015). Perceived social isolation, evoluationary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach. The Royal Society Publishing, 370(1669).
  5. Valtorta, N., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016, April). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke: Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Observational Studies. Heart, 102, 1009-1016.