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September 16, 2021

Alone Together: How Isolation Impacts Health

Despite how crowded this little ball of dirt we call home may be, we all feel lonely from time to time. It's time to take a look at the reasons why, and ask ourselves what can be done.

We've all experienced it from time to time—loneliness is an inevitable part of the human experience. In many ways, it's a fundamental part of humanity—and reminds us that we truly need one another. Some, however, suffer from chronic loneliness, which can lead to a great deal of physical and mental anguish. But, with well over 7 billion people on the planet, how are we all still so lonely?

The social evolution

In 2011, an extensive study was conducted on 217 primate species and their patterns of social and communal living. The study found that a significant shift in "social behaviour occurred when primates switched from being mainly active at night to being more active during the day". Before this shift, primates were solitary creatures, and took to hunting and foraging in the night under cloak of darkness.

With more land and plant food made available to them after the extinction of dinosaurs, mammals grew to be formidable opponents. Some research also suggests that the rise in Earth's atmospheric oxygen levels could have increased mammal size, ushering in a new era of predators. Whatever the driving factor behind the transition to daytime activity—be it food, land, environment, or newfound safety—early primates were now incredibly vulnerable to attack by new predators they had otherwise avoided in the dark. Their solution was to band together as a means of self-preservation; and thus began the long road to civilisation as we know it.

The same study on primate behaviour concluded that humans are the only species of primates capable of navigating a myriad of social settings. "Throughout history, humans have lived in monogamous and polygamous societies; in nuclear families and extended family groups"—proving our immense and unmatched flexibility. It would seem their findings suggest that "more brain power is needed for groups that have a more complicated social life", so pat yourself on the back, you smart cookie—you deserve it.

But, intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said "it is only with the highest degree of intelligence that suffering reaches its supreme point." So, whether you're an overthinker or not, it's not exactly comforting to know that no creature has ever suffered on this planet more than us. Unless you believe we've been visited by aliens, that is.

The lone health crisis

A recent MIT study found that we crave social interaction in the same region of the brain where we crave food—which has a plethora of implications. Firstly, it indicates that social interactions are, as we imagined, tied closely with survival—or rather, much like food, they sustain us. It also signals how we have evolved in such a way that social interactions have become entwined with both our mental and physical health. But, what happens when these interactions are lacking?

The need to be close to others is hardwired into us through millions of years of evolution—a facet of humanity that would be impossible to undo. So much so, that the absence of social connection "heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder." As reported by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, "loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity". This is made even more alarming when one considers just how many of us experience the crush of loneliness throughout our lives.

Our minds decode instances of social exclusion in a similar way to physical pain—and, when one considers the evidence that isolation increases the risk of premature mortality—it's hard to deny that the issue is quite literally life or death. A Pew Research Centre survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults successfully linked "frequent loneliness to dissatisfaction with one’s family, social and community life". This may not shock you to learn, but loneliness can occur even when you're surrounded by people—it's perceived isolation that matters most.

What's more, evidence suggests that loneliness is linked "with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life." Loneliness increases the "risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease" by 30 percent and dementia by 40 percent. Without a doubt, both the mental and physical effects of loneliness are shocking beyond belief—and yet still we ask what can be done?

So, let's start talking

Well, it's not all as melancholic as it seems. The issue now has a great deal of research behind it, and steps are being taken to find working solutions. If you're experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation, be sure to check out the Campaign to End Loneliness for services and support. It might even help to join a new group or community—and, if you're not one for leaving the house, there's a wealth of fun to be had online. No pressure, of course—but whenever you're ready to start meeting new people, here's a few tips we hope will help you on your way:

  1. Search, Search, Search. As obvious as it seems, the first step to finding a new community is looking—and you might not find your fit the first time. So, have a look round, and put the feelers out in your current social circles. If you can't find a community that fits your own ideals, why not make a new one? Check out our leadership guide, for more info on how to build a lasting online community.
  2. Take interest. Ask questions, respond to others and focus on making others feel comfortable where you can. The more comfortable you make others feel, the more heartily they will respond. Friendship is a two way street, and although we, as humans, love to talk of ourselves, often it does well to give the spotlight to others and watch them shine. Invest in those around you, and the community at large, for you're part of the foundation, and worth investing in yourself.
  3. Be true to yourself. We know how cheesy this sounds, but it's true—authenticity attracts. First figure out what interests you, and what your values are—then try to find a community that aligns. If you're genuine about what's important to you, it'll be easier to connect with others. When you've found the right community, you've every reason to be your authentic self—so, why not start as you mean to go on? Being open, accepting and vulnerable can encourage the same from others, and ultimately lead you on to a deeper understanding of those around you.
  4. Know your worth. Remember that you are as valuable to your community as they are to you. It may take a while to find the place you truly fit, but once it clicks, you'll find your purpose within that community. With purpose comes self-worth, and with self-worth comes a better ability to help others. If you're struggling with confidence or self-esteem and need some support to help keep you motivated—why not check out the Anxiety Fitness Support Group on Tevent. We all need each other, after all.

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