We humans are social beings and our entire neurobiological, psychosocial, emotional development has evolved within association with others. We are hardwired for physical, emotional and social connection. Our very existence largely, has evolved, is sustained and remains in community. What is the effect on our health when we are compelled to socially retreat into isolation and refrain from physical touch? We already knew that as people grew older, their social networks became smaller and with that, increase in loneliness, anxiety and depression which increases their risk of worsening chronic disease and pre mature death. After 3 months of this sheltered living, what we are observing is alarming, particularly for older people living alone.
Since the National Emergency Declaration was made in March and subsequently the broad mandate for everyone to socially distance 6 ft. apart from others, refrain from physically touching, not to go to work, home sequester and moreover, if exposed to Coronavirus to home quarantine for 14 days, the incidence of fear, anxiety, loneliness and depression have significantly increased from already high levels prior to the pandemic. According to a study by Cigna Health, America’s loneliness epidemic is getting worse with more than 3 in 5 adult Americans (61%) reporting feeling lonely. Living under the constraints of the Coronavirus has worsened these statistics particularly in older people who were already living alone. Social media has a major impact on loneliness with very heavy social media users significantly more likely to feel lonely, left out and without companionship. This is not so much a cause and effect relationship as it is a blatant symptom of the problem.
ARE YOU AT RISK?
Health risks increase across all generations when individuals become socially isolated. The relationship between social isolation and cognitive decline in adults, particularly those with already cognitive impairment is indeed a predictor and marker of pathological brain changes. Perceived social isolation leading to feelings of loneliness is associated with depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, cardiovascular events and a weakened immune system. Our brain is wired to monitor for loneliness and if detected considers this as a threat and will set into motion the stress response signally the body to stop repair and growth processes and switch to survival mode leaving us more susceptible to infection. Your immune system is downregulated because it perceives that this is not a time to create more antibodies, but a time to transfer all energy to the external threat. As the stress levels worsen, so does unhealthy lifestyle habits, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, weight gain, there is a 30% increase in risk of Coronary artery disease and stroke. All of the deleterious physical effects are coupled with negative effects on mental health as well.
Staying Healthy During Social Isolation
The obvious solution here is to get more social, see your friends and family, but that is not fully recommended at this time. However, there are definite measures you can take to combat loneliness and take control as best you can of the situation. The pandemic is horrible. Our lives have been disrupted and life will never be the same when this is over. However, realize that there is opportunity in this situation. The key is your mind….there is power there.
First, you must understand that love and your mind cannot be quarantined. Of course love for others, but right now it is even more important to have love for yourself in order to rise above your external situation. Decrease self-criticism and build more self-compassion which enhances overall psychological and emotional well-being and mood. Begin from this foundation and develop a sense of mission and purpose in life. Find a cause that you are passionate about. See yourself learning a new language, starting an online business, writing that book hiding within you, helping others online who may be alone, pull that canvas out and start to paint again. Imagine and get creative.
If you find yourself increasingly on social media, limit it. Daily exposure on multiple sites with multiple people you do not know is correlated with poor mental health outcomes. Use it wisely only to connect with supportive people with whom you have an established relationship. Set up regular weekly schedule to use Facetime, Zoom, and Skype for virtual dinner, coffee, conversation dates. Meeting friends and family this way is just as rewarding for now until we are out and about safely. It can be just as meaningful and fulfilling.
This is a good time to learn meditation and prime your mind and mindset for all the good that is coming your way. There are many online programs to teach you how to reduce stress and increase happiness while at home. Spending time to center yourself in the present moment and turning your attention away from the scary world outside will help to eliminate that “lost” feeling. The purpose is not to clear your mind of thoughts, but to recognize them, observe them and let them go without placing emotion or a feeling to them. This creates openness, more space within your mind. With practice the space increases in stillness which creates calm, equanimity and peace. This stillness imparts a multitude of benefits to your health, brain and body. If you want to create resilience mentally and physically, learn to meditate.
It is a well-known fact the benefits of exercise for your brain, body and mind. It will decrease stress, boost your mood and increase your energy. If that is not enough benefits for you, it will help you live longer and you will grow more brain cells. Now don’t be concerned of you haven’t been physically active for a while. You begin where you are, even if that is in a chair. Adapt to where you are and work up to increasing your time and endurance. Listen to your body as you challenge it. It was made to move. If you are overweight, have heart disease, high blood pressure or have had a stroke, discuss your plan with your doctor and your family. If given the green light, you can begin. Relaxed walking is safe to begin for 5 minutes or until you feel too fatigued or out of breath. Do this daily or 3 times a week. Goal is to work up to 30 minutes each time. Working out longer has not been shown to benefit you more; in fact, working out longer has shown a negative return on the effort. Classes can be found online. Pick one that is best for your limitations and ability.
Yoga, Tai Chi are both excellent for flexibility and connective tissue maintenance in the body but also in calming the mind and decreasing stress. I would suggest beginning with Hatha yoga. Alternate this with your aerobic exercise. Classes can be found online.
Being socially isolated and lonely can reduce sleep and the quality of sleep, meaning the actual amount of time you are in bed and the amount of time that you actually are asleep. Poor sleep compromises a healthy immune function and promotes inflammation which puts you at risk for infection and susceptibility to coronavirus. Poor sleep is also linked to cognitive impairment and decline, particularly as we get older. Research shows that loneliness can contribute to the accumulation of amyloid protein in the brain which is a marker of Alzheimer’s disease. So, it is imperative that we get sound quality sleep from 7-9 hours. Here are some tips from “The Sleep Doctor” Dr. Michael Breus.
- Ditch the electronics 90 minutes to 2 hours before bed.
- Avoid alcohol right before bed.
- Exercise Regularly To Improve Sleep.
- Turn down the thermostat to 65-67 degrees F.
- Establish a bedtime routine; reading, journaling, same time for sleep and waking up.
- Eat protein fiber rich meals no later than 3 hours before bed.
- Invest in a good mattress, bed and pillow
Overeating out of stress or loneliness is familiar to many of us lately which can attest to the Covid-19 Weight Gain. The burden is compounded if there is also social isolation, fear, anxiety because we eat to feel more emotionally full with an attempt to fill the void of loneliness and isolation. We not only eat too much, we eat foods known to cause weight gain like foods high in sugar content that give an immediate sugar rush and release of endorphins. There is research that suggests that loneliness and its negative eating effects can be reduced if we become more creative. It recommends using creative expression to fill us up where food cannot. When we get that urge to eat in the middle of the night or an hour after we just had a meal, feeling alone or sad, to reach for a pen and write, to reach for a paint brush and paint, to turn on music and listen or dance. It has been shown that this can make us feel better and hopefully decrease the emotional eating.
THE WAY FORWARD
Most likely until we have a safe and effective vaccine, our lives are going to continue in disruption which means we have to be pro-active, smart and resilient. All of these measures will help you to maneuver and weather the storm of Covid-19. We are all capable of doing this.
What has happened is unprecedented, challenging, but I see it as a remarkable opportunity to transcend, transform ourselves individually and our nation collectively into a more coherent, compassionate, loving, healthy world. Listen to and care for yourself and one another. As it is said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
If you need support or want to know more, watch my videos on Boosting Immunity, Meditation, Brain Health, Gratitude and more on YouTube, Youngblood Lifestyle or go to my website, www.vyoungbloodmd.com and schedule a free 30 minute Zoom call to discuss how we can partner in meeting your health goals.
Remember; take care of your precious self!