From the Medical Director: Isolation, Loneliness, and the Pandemic

By: Edwin Kim, MD, MRO Physicians are at higher risk of social isolation or loneliness. According to a Harvard Business Review survey, professional (law and medical) degree holders scored 25 percent lonelier than those with bachelor’s degrees, and 20 percent lonelier than PhDs. And this was before the pandemic.

Current estimates from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project show that 36 percent of Americans feel serious loneliness. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy estimated 40 percent of Americans felt lonely and that loneliness was at the root of much emotional and physical pain. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in those working from home. According to an American Psychiatric Association opinion poll, nearly two out of three people feel isolated or lonely at least sometimes, and 17 percent do all the time.

Loneliness is a common experience or feeling associated with the perception that the quality of one’s social needs are not being met. Perhaps more importantly, this feeling of isolation can be independent of the quantity of social connections you hold. Some characterize the feeling as being alone, separated or divided from others. There is an inability to connect more than superficially, and can feed parallel feelings of low self-esteem, low confidence, and hopelessness. You may be suffering from loneliness if you often feel that you lack companionship, often feel left out, or often feel isolated from others.

During the pandemic, most people used technology to mitigate the potential impact of physical distancing on social isolation by communicating with friends, family and their support network. I heard this frequently from those in active recovery who successfully maintain stability in their connection to peers, mutual help groups and treatment teams. Even so, there were certainly some whose sense of well-being was challenged by the lack of face-to-face activities.

Loneliness, in itself, is not a detriment. In fact, psychologists hypothesize that in an evolutionary sense, it helps humans seek social and interpersonal connection. However, left unmitigated, the negative feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead to despair. At its worst, this can resemble or exacerbate severe depression or anxiety, and potentially result in problematic substance use. A risk of relapse is not the only health consequence. Studies have shown the systemic effects of loneliness on the cardiovascular and immune systems. Loneliness carries potentially serious health consequences such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, cognitive dysfunction. Isolation and loneliness can exacerbate and feed on each other.

While resuming in-person activities can alleviate feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnectedness for many, I remind people that loneliness was a growing problem before the pandemic and will not disappear after the pandemic. Physicians and individuals in recovery are susceptible to problematic loneliness. Some ways to help overcome this feeling include:

1) maintaining a strong support network,
2) show up to recovery and mutual help groups
3) Engage with family, friends, and colleagues
4) Engage with new activities, interests, and passions
5) Establish care with a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist.