Social Isolation is an Illusion

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Why you shouldn't despair in these trying times

Why you shouldn’t despair in these trying times

A virus has come to threaten humanity, the only defense we have — social isolation. Hardly the set-up for an Oscar-winning motion picture — a thrilling intro followed by the main character binge-watching Netflix and raiding the fridge until, in a dramatic plot twist, they fall asleep on the couch. Yet this is the reality we all face.

Many are already experiencing the negative emotional effects of social isolation, with the extroverts having a particularly tough time, and the introverts, well, just like any other day for them. But beneath the perpetual panic and uncertainty of when this will all end, I find myself asking — why do we find social isolation so distressing?

Evolutionarily wired

Whenever I am puzzled by the human condition, I look to evolutionary biology. It always gives me the answer. This case is clear — social isolation is unpleasant because we are tribal mammals and the primitive brain interprets being alone with loss of its tribe and a decreased likelihood of survival. Makes sense. This elicits a stress response in the body, priming us for fight or flight scenarios, and an emotional response in the brain, painfully telling us we should find a tribe as soon as possible. Those who had the strongest response were more likely to survive and pass their genes on. Those who were content with being alone were almost certainly eaten by sabre-toothed tigers.

In modern times I find myself part of numerous tribes — some digital, some analogue. These tribes are important to my mental health, but they do not directly affect my likelihood of survival. Well, unless I make a snarky remark at my public speaking group and upset George again… But generally there is no longer a link between social isolation and being suddenly erased from the gene pool. The modern homo sapiens is a walking, talking paradox. He has built an extraordinarily complex society and dominated an entire planet, yet remains stuck in prehistoric biological hardware that is many millennia overdue a software update. It’s as if the human brain keeps clicking “Remind me later” while archaic versions of software continue to run with errors popping up constantly. Are we really not in control of our own software?

Socially isolated, lonely or both?

COVID-19 forces social isolation upon many of us, but does it force loneliness upon us? The difference between social isolation and loneliness can be defined by objective or subjective: the former being the objective physical separation from others; the latter being the subjective unpleasant feeling you get when you feel isolated. What is less straightforward is the relationship between the two. Social isolation can, but does not necessarily, lead to loneliness. But loneliness is not always the result of social isolation, with intricately weaved social and psychological factors coming in to play. Like with most facets of mental health, we mostly don’t have a bloody clue.

Before coronavirus had stolen the world’s attention, there had been a lot of talk about the “loneliness epidemic”. Countless articles about the Western world being more lonely than ever before, and hundreds of studies about how loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, will reduce your life expectancy and generally make your body just give up. Now, as people are being forced to socially isolate, journalists seize the opportunity to bombard us with articles about how the combination of coronavirus anxiety and social isolation is potentially deadlier than the virus itself. It’s as if they are desperately trying to give us all a nervous breakdown.

The loneliness spiral

Social scientists describe a model of loneliness, in which perceived social isolation leads to hypervigilance to social threats in the environment. Put simply, when you feel lonely you are on the lookout for signs of rejection that might compound your social adversity. This is the reason why when you spend all day alone in your home, then venture out at the end of the day, social interactions feel harder and of higher stake. Going back to our lonely caveman; having already been cast out from one tribe he must now be alert to any potential signs of non-acceptance from the next tribe he encounters, lest he be left at the mercy of the hungry sabre-toothed tiger.

This places the lonely caveman in a difficult situation, with a tendency to view the social world as a more threatening place than the non-lonely caveman. Soon he begins to expect negative social encounters, recalling the same negative experiences with greater clarity than any positive encounters. He simply cannot stop obsessing about how the other caveman wouldn’t share his club with him, and is sure it will happen again. Negative encounters lead to avoidance, avoidance leads to a self-perpetuating loneliness spiral. The modern caveman (a.k.a the millennial) has the additional problem of society enforcing an unopposed view that being alone is something that should ideally be avoided. Combine this with the scientific evidence now stacked against him, and good luck getting out of that spiral.

Loneliness is a state of mind

It cannot be argued that loneliness has negative implications for both physical and mental health, the most obvious explanation being that loneliness triggers a stress response which weakens immunity, speeds up aging, increases the risk of heart disease and the list goes on. But what if it isn’t stressful? Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson, authored a paper titled “The undoing effects of positive emotions”. Unlike those hoards of loner-hating scientist bullies that did all those mean studies, she managed to find a glimmer of hope for all the lonely people out there.

Fredrickson theorized that positive emotions could “undo” some of the deleterious physical effects of negative emotions, and was able to demonstrate this in a rather humorous and slightly mean study. She made unwitting subjects prepare an impromptu public speech in order to initiate a stress response, then measured those subject’s blood pressure and heart rates to assess how quickly they were able to get back to their non-stressed baseline. The subjects who were shown happy videos immediately following the exercise recovered twice as quickly as those who had watched sad videos. Another group of psychologists then applied the same theory specifically to the negative effects of loneliness. They confirmed Fredrickson’s suspicions, finding that “at higher levels of happiness the association between loneliness and mortality … was weakened considerably”.

As a self-sufficient introvert I am more resistant to feelings of loneliness. Despite this, if I remain alone for some period of time, a feeling of dysphoria will hit me — “Is everything OK?” it will probingly ask, the very nature of the question leading to the conclusion that indeed everything must not be OK. I start to question why I am on my own, that it is a sign of something ‘wrong’ with me at a fundamental level. Soon I find myself a victim in a melancholic drama, destined to remain alone forever. I feel certain that everyone else in the world is off having fun without me, and I am totally alone …

But then I challenge the narrator of this bleak story — “What is wrong with being alone?” It has no retort. It does not respond to logical inputs. It only provides illogical emotional outputs. I gain insight through objectivity, recalling why I am on my own at that current time, concluding that it is something I have chosen. Soon I regain awareness of the joyous task I was in the middle of completing, remembering that I am content with exactly how things are. I remember that I have friends and family who care deeply about me, but they are not currently with me right now and that is O.K — sometimes preferable actually. My inner dialogue lightens up, and I am once again at peace with myself and the present moment. I resume happily rambling away to my volleyball with a face painted on it …

According to Fredrickson and her “theory of undoing”, those fleeting moments of my monkey brain trying to make me cry about how alone I feel, are outweighed by my predominantly positive mindset. Despite the fact I am “socially isolated”, I am pleasantly involved with the task at hand and those mean scientists can’t hurt me any more.

Social isolation is an illusion

Whilst the concept of social isolation cannot be disputed, given its objective and concrete definition, being physically separated in this day and age doesn’t mean what it used to. Social isolation in the modern age is an illusion. If I can pick up my phone and within seconds be connected to, and annoying the crap out of, anyone who is careless enough to give me their phone number, or jump on a computer and immediately be cheered up by my Indonesian friend Ali Baba’s big friendly face, then can I really ever be “socially isolated”? Sometimes my partner might wish I could be, but sadly for her this is simply not possible. And it never will be, for even if my phone breaks and the internet is down, I always have my volleyball.

I guess what I’m trying to say is — the coronavirus can try to disintegrate our tribes, our economy, and our spirits, but it can’t take away our internet connection. Physical face-to-face interaction will always remain the gold standard of human connection, but the internet provides us with countless modalities to connect with one another, some where you don’t even have to deal with the other person’s face, at all. What a truly wonderful world we live in …


Further resources:

If loneliness does get the best of you in these trying times, there are numerous things you can do to console that inner lonely caveman of yours:

Why not try some virtual karaoke?

Or download the ‘Houseparty’ app and see how challenging it is having a conversation with 8 self-quarantined family members all at once:

Or if you can’t stand your family, you can speak to some random person also in self-isolation, any time you want:

Or you could join a good old fashioned online support group:

And if you really start going stir crazy then make sure to get in some physical activity. See how many laps of the room you can do before you get dizzy, or see if you can bench press the dog — get creative. If you don’t have a heavy enough dog, an app like this should suffice:


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