Doctor’s Note: The psychological effects of social distancing

From nightmares to crippling loneliness, isolation can affect us in many adverse ways, as a doctor explains.

Doctor''s note psychological effects/Getty Images
People with existing mental health issues may be finding physical distancing and isolation particularly challenging [Getty Images]

The practices of physical distancing and self-isolation are a crucial part of the plan to reduce the spread of coronavirus and, we hope, the number of deaths from the disease.

As important as it is to keep these measures in place, it is also important to recognise the psychological effects this can have on people.

Humans are social creatures. Like all social animals, we have evolved over millennia to rely on complex social interactions with those within our own species. This has been a vital part of our evolution and forms the basis of most societies.

As increasingly stringent social restrictions are put into place, mental health experts are warning that losing these important connections can come at a high psychological cost.

There is a difference between being socially isolated and being lonely.

Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people – say, living alone – while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated.

It is possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely. But loneliness is not just a feeling; it is a biological warning from your body to seek out other people. Human connections are important to survive and thrive, and your body knows this.

Physical distancing and self-isolation measures that have been applied to limit the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in an increased number of people feeling lonely.

Long before coronavirus, we have known that loneliness, in particular, has been linked to a number of adverse health outcomes.


There have been anecdotal reports of people having nightmares or trouble sleeping as a result of the stress surrounding the coronavirus.

This is not a surprise. According to research into this phenomenon, anything that can cause anxiety or stress will increase your risk of having nightmares. Trauma and upsetting events can also have a similar effect on your sleep and dreams.


The elderly are particularly vulnerable during isolation. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness in the elderly to a higher risk of a variety of physical and mental conditions, as well as cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, even earlier death.

It is thought that lonely older people do not engage in activities such as conversations with other people, spend less time outdoors and are less physically active than their non-lonely counterparts, and all of this causes significant mental stress which can lead to increased rates of Alzheimer’s dementia.

The effects of social isolation are not confined to the elderly, however. With fewer people hugging and greeting each other during the pandemic, we are losing another one of our essential human connections – touch.

Human touch releases a hormone in the body called oxytocin. It is oxytocin that triggers the bond between a mother and an infant, and it may also play a role in recognition, sexual arousal, trust and anxiety. Some research has shown that lower levels of oxytocin have resulted in higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are also more prevalent among those isolating themselves during the pandemic.

The European Public Health Alliance stated: “Feelings of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the current public health crisis, can have severe health consequences for a number of socioeconomic groups.

“Furthermore, limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues, and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.”

Routine helps

People depend on routine for their mental health. This may include things such as going to work, taking the children to school or going to the gym.

When their routine is thrown out and they are forced into isolation – with the added threat of becoming seriously ill from the virus – there is a real danger that mental health issues set in.

As a doctor, I have had an increased number of calls from my patients about their mental health. People with existing mental health issues are finding the current situation particularly difficult, and it is important that they speak to a healthcare professional about it.

What we do not want is to come out of this pandemic to the collateral damage of large numbers of people suffering from subsequent mental health issues.

If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to a healthcare professional sooner rather than later.

Source: Al Jazeera