Social Isolation and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 11, 2021
4 min read

For people of all ages, social connection is vital to survival. We’re hardwired to depend on one another for support. When we don’t get the connection we need, we’re sadder, sicker, and more at risk of early death.

This lack of connection is more common than many people realize. According to a survey conducted in January 2020, more than three out of five Americans feel chronically lonely.  

It’s normal for anyone who feels socially isolated to struggle with mental health, but there are steps you can take to cope with isolation and feel more connected.

Social isolation can affect nearly every aspect of your mental health. Studies show that feelings of isolation can be linked to:

People of all ages are vulnerable to the effects of social isolation. If you experience loneliness as a pre-teen or teenager, for example, you’re more likely to struggle with depression in adulthood.

Older adults are vulnerable emotionally and cognitively. Social isolation can cause up to a 40% increase in dementia risk.

No matter how old you are, it’s important to recognize when you struggle with social isolation. Noticing is the first step to developing healthy coping mechanisms. To cope with social isolation, try to:

Acknowledge your feelings. Sometimes it seems easier to ignore your feelings when you’re struggling, especially when it feels like you have no one to talk to. Take some time to acknowledge that things are hard. If you need to, reach out to a therapist.

Get outside. Being outdoors is beneficial to your mental and physical health. The natural light can help to boost your mood and the vitamin D in sunlight can ease symptoms of depression.

Reconnect with your interests. If you find you have more time to yourself, think about what solo hobbies you used to enjoy or always wanted to take up. Pursuing a new hobby can redirect your mind and give you something positive to think about.

Practice self-care. It’s important to counteract the stress responses that come with social isolation. Stress can cause problems with your breathing, blood pressure, muscles, and more. Take the time to relax in a way that works for you, whether that’s a warm bath and soothing music or a meditation program.

Check in with people you know. When you’ve been isolated, it’s easy to feel that people are doing fine without you. It’s a common self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by loneliness, and it’s usually not true — unless it causes you to withdraw from others and treat them as though you know they don’t care.

Instead, challenge your assumptions and reach out. You may find that your friends and acquaintances need you just as much as you need them.

Find ways to participate in your community. Social groups like book clubs and church choirs can reduce the risk of death in older adults. The science has focused on older adults because there tends to be a greater risk of isolation after retirement. But anyone can feel isolated and everyone benefits from community and group participation. 

Choose the right living situation. In the U.S., the number of one-person households has doubled over the past half-century. Living alone isn’t a guarantee of loneliness, just like living with others doesn’t necessarily mean connection. 

It’s important to find a living situation that gives you the right balance of connection and independence. You may find that balance through cohousing, which allows people to have their own private spaces as well as shared community areas where they can connect and spend time together. Research shows that this model can reduce feelings of isolation and improve mental well-being.

Develop friendships at work. Work relationships can help you to feel more connected to others. Overall, people with better co-worker relationships have lower self-reported loneliness scores, and those numbers get even better when there’s a feeling of collaboration.

For older adults, simply working outside the home can combat many of the feelings of isolation that come with retirement.  

Everyone has a different experience with social isolation, and what works for you may be different than what works for someone else. It may help to keep a journal and write about your social experiences. A therapist can also be a useful resource, helping you to process feelings of isolation and work toward a more connected lifestyle.