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The Impact of Social Isolation
April 16, 2020

One of the most mind-bending things about this pandemic is how it has collapsed human experience so that people from all walks of life, from the privileged to the vulnerable and under-served, are having a shared, collective experience of isolation. Though the trappings might look somewhat different between homes in San Francisco and bungalows in remote villages in Thailand, we are collectively experiencing a “social recession”–being cut off from family and friends, from neighbors, workplaces and from our communities at large. It is uncommon, to say the least, that our supporters and our beneficiaries can say, “We’re experiencing, in many ways, the same thing.”

We’re on varied timelines – some of us have already crossed the 1-month mark, some are nearing it – but the length of this isolation will take a toll on all of us. Even after the most strict restrictions are lifted, best estimates are that we will need to prepare ourselves for various versions of distancing, in a kind of whack-a-mole project with this virus, not for weeks or months, but more like 2 years.

Health experts know that loneliness is a killer. Literally. It leads to all kinds of negative health consequences: a heightened state of stress, a heightened perception of threat and increased biological threat responses that end up, paradoxically, weakening our immune systems.

It was also loneliness that led a student of ours to go to board a bus to Bangkok in pursuit of a “good job” she had been offered, in our most recent near-trafficking case in early January. Even knowing the risks of trafficking, she connected with a woman online, out of loneliness, and let herself be talked into going to Bangkok for a job, one we know would have led to trafficking. Thankfully our staff were able to intervene and work with police to intercept her just before she got on the bus. It was only because she trusted her staff mentors enough to tell them what she was doing that they were able to take action. While loneliness prompted her to take an unimaginable risk, it was connection that saved her.


Counteracting Isolation and Loneliness

We, individually, don’t have a lot of control over the course of this pandemic, aside from doing our best to remain disciplined about physical distancing and good hygiene. But to help ourselves maintain this for who-knows-how-long, we can try to develop resources to manage our loneliness. We can make an “emotional health plan” for ourselves, to work in with the daily routines that we’ve had to rewrite from scratch now–getting some form of exercise, journaling or writing letters to help us connect with ourselves, trying out mindfulness techniques, scheduling in at least one phone call to a loved one each day. 

Recognize, too, that extroverts, who derive their energy from being around others, are going to have a particularly hard time with this. Only children, who now have only their parents for company, are going to have a hard time. People who live alone, people with disabilities, people who were already struggling with mental illness, older people, and essential workers who are separating themselves to protect their families are going to have a real hard time with this. The rest of us can try to be aware and do our best to stay more connected with them–even if it’s just a quick message to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about you.”

Don’t just do it for them–do it for you. Service is a powerful antidote to loneliness. Not only does it provide connection when you’re doing something for someone else, it’s also a powerful reminder that you have value, and that you have something worth offering.


Recommended listen: You Don’t Have to be Alone to be Lonely – a conversation with former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on 10 Percent Happier with Dan Harris


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