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How to cope with fear of social isolation

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So-called social distancing can help stop the spread of COVID-19, but it also has a downside.

Social distancing can lead to social isolation, which carries mental health risks that include depression and suicide. Social isolation can also have a negative impact on pre-existing conditions. Without help, the emotional fallout from loneliness, isolation and helplessness can worsen.

The risks are especially high among teens and young adults, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a continuing survey that began in April, over 40% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in the last seven days.

People in that age group tend to fear social isolation more than COVID-19, said Luke Raymond, LCPC, manager of Behavioral Health for OSF HealthCare.

“The younger generations are much better at identifying mental health as a problem than those over 40,” Luke said. “But that’s why social isolation is so scary to them. They know where it can lead. They probably know someone from high school or college or a family member who has died from suicide. That makes it much more real to them than COVID, which appears to be most dangerous to an older population or those with chronic, underlying health problems.”

Need for human interaction

The irony of this dilemma is that we live in a digital age, in which social media and online games make it possible for friends and family to stay connected 24/7/365. They can interact without ever leaving their bedrooms or seeing someone in the flesh.

“The coronavirus did not cause social isolation. We’ve been doing that to ourselves for quite some time,” said Kyle Boerke, PsyD, a psychologist for OSF Medical Group – Psychiatry & Psychology in Peoria, Illinois.

And yet, living life over your phone or other digital device is not healthy.

“As human beings, we have a core need for genuine human interaction,” Luke said.

You can have a Zoom meeting with your family, friends or business associates and not only talk to them, but see them. You can Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat details of your plans.

But for most people, there’s no substitute for actually being there. And when that’s not possible, there’s FOMO — fear of missing out.

“It’s very real,” Luke said. “Human beings are social creatures. We function better when we are interacting with other people. Family is incredibly important. Community is incredibly important. Friendship, collaboration, getting together; all those things matter. When we miss out, it has an impact on people’s social and emotional well-being.”

Balancing physical and mental safety

It’s important for young people to recognize the real threat of COVID-19 to physical health in the community. Even if they don’t get sick, they can asymptomatically carry the virus and transmit it to someone else. They need to take responsibility to protect themselves and others.

But it’s equally important to recognize the real threat that social isolation poses to the mental and emotional health of young people. Mental wellness can impact their physical health and interpersonal relationships and needs to be a priority in times of stress, more than ever. People of all ages need to protect their mental health as well as their physical health.

How to balance those two essentials?

To start with, don’t disregard digital communication, even if it’s not ideal.

Young woman on smartphone checking social media.“We can stay socially connected, even during social distancing,” Dr. Boerke said. “During this time, that has been a blessing for sure, because I can keep in touch with my friends. It’s important to get back to what is truly important, which is making sure that we have that close group of friends.

“Also, for children, the family connection is just as important as the friend connection. With many parents working from home and sports being on hiatus, families can take advantage of that time and come out of this pandemic stronger with healthy and happy children.”

Second, understand the goal is truly physical distancing, not social. Unless you are under a stay-at-home order, there are ways to interact in a more traditional fashion, as long as you follow the guidelines:

“Follow the rules. You can find a way to balance that social activity within the rules and practices for maintaining safety,” Luke said.

Recognize signs of struggle

If you are a young adult feeling depressed about social isolation, you need to seek help. If you are the parent of a young person at home, you need to recognize what your child is experiencing and get the guidance they need.

“It’s important to notice the signs of a young person who’s starting to struggle,” Luke said. He breaks down the signs into three categories:

  • Physical: Look for changes in sleep, appetite, energy and motivation. Is the person maintaining good hygiene, or have they lost focus?
  • Emotional: Watch for excessive worry, sadness, dissatisfaction with life, irritability and agitation.
  • Cognitive: Is the person focusing on negatives, jumping to conclusions, personalizing things (“this is my fault”), or having trouble with memory, confusion and concentration?

When you see these signs, seek help.

Contact your primary care provider. OSF HealthCare also offers OSF SilverCloud, a secure and anonymous digital behavioral health option offering supportive content for a range of issues such as depression, anxiety and stress.

Last Updated: July 21, 2020

About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: COVID-19, Mental Health