Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director at ARC

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the lives of many. Some countries have their borders closed to the outside world but are starting to open. Others, like the U.S., have imposed restrictions on international travel. Some cities are still struggling to manage the virus effectively and have regulations on social gatherings and interactions.

The world is collectively approaching the pandemic’s two-year anniversary. How did social isolation impact peoples’ physical and mental health? Now that many are transitioning back into public spaces, how can they manage the issues they developed during this time in history?

Loneliness can inflict harm. 

Not being able to physically interact with friends and family can make a person lonely. There’s something about the human touch that makes people feel connected. An article published in the American Psychological Association called “The risks of social isolation” explained a study that found perceived social isolation to be associated with depression, accelerated cognitive decline, poor sleep quality, worsened cardiovascular function and impaired executive function and immunity at every stage of life.

Another study cited in the article discovered that social isolation increases the risk of premature death. Social isolation imposed a severity of risk that was on par with that associated with smoking and obesity due to the lack of access to care and physical inactivity. The CDC highlighted other research on loneliness that found a 50% increased risk of dementia, 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Loneliness was correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Loneliness can also trigger substance use and recovery relapse. 

It’s probably unsurprising that social isolation and loneliness can impact your mind and body. After all, humans are social creatures that require healthy and thriving relationships to function well. Now that you are transitioning back into public spaces, you may start to struggle with depression, anxiety or even the fear of becoming ill. To manage the stress, you might start using drugs or alcohol.

If you are currently in addiction recovery, the absence of meaningful relationships where you feel understood and valued can increase your chances of relapsing back into drug or alcohol use. One reason mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were created was to help prevent feelings of loneliness and to establish a strong support system. In these and other 12-step groups, members always have someone they can lean on when feeling vulnerable to relapse.

Getting used to public spaces again may take some time.   

Many businesses have opened their spaces back up to the public. Kids are back on school buses and learning in classrooms. Staff is being required to switch back to the physical office from at-home remote work. As exciting as it may be to some to get “back to normal,” you might find the transition anxiety and fear-inducing. You’ve spent so much time in a secure and stable environment that you may have become sensitive to the stimuli and disruptions in public spaces. The uncertainties in the outside world can be scary and stressful.

Nevertheless, you can get through this. If you can still work from home and don’t go out much, start easing yourself back into public spaces. Bring your work to a coffee shop or take a walk in the park. Ask your boss if you can slowly transition back to the office. Your schedule may be turned on its head. Intentionally restructuring your routine to meet new (or old) demands can give you some stability in your day. Reflect every day about how you felt.

Drugs and alcohol are sometimes used to cope with mental illness.

Mental health conditions commonly co-occur with substance use disorders, and about 8.4 million adults in the U.S. suffer from both. A news release from the National Institute of Health explained that past studies showed that people who are “diagnosed with mood or anxiety disorders are about twice as likely as the general population to also suffer from a substance use disorder.”

Persons struggling with other mental conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia were found to be “4 times more likely to be heavy alcohol users; 3.5 times more likely to use marijuana regularly, 5.1 times more likely to be daily cigarette smokers, and 4.6 times more likely to use other drugs at least 10 times in their lives.” Mental health conditions put you at a greater risk of having a problem with substances.

Do you know when it’s time to get help? 

If you think you may be suffering from the mental health effects of social isolation and loneliness, don’t ignore the signs. Speak to a clinician as soon as possible if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance abuse
  • Prolonged depression
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Excessive anger or fear
  • Inability to cope with daily problems
  • Many unexplained physical ailments
  • Confusion, delusions or hallucinations
  • Significant changes in eating or sleeping patterns

Although it can be challenging to reach out for help, there are professionals and support groups that can assist you. You don’t have to accept these feelings of loneliness any longer.

The pandemic has changed the way we interact and socialize with friends, family and coworkers. The loneliness of social isolation can cause depression, anxiety and other health conditions, making it even harder to get back into the public. Authentic Recovery Center hears the call for help in this vulnerable period of your life. Call us at (866) 786-1376.