Isolation: Feeling Alone Can Be a Big Problem


As I was watching a TED talk about longevity, the speaker asked the question, “What factors would predict living to the ripe old age of 100?” A researcher from Brigham Young University, Juliannne Holt-Lunstad, studied tens of thousands of middle age people over time to see what lifestyle factors contributed to living longer. I thought I could guess them. Of course, smoking would be considered bad, diet is always important, and, exercise would once again be touted as the golden ticket to a long life.

Boy, was I wrong. Yes, those things I just listed were on the list, but each of them was outranked: top of the list and THE two factors that have more influence on living longer than any of the other factors, were having “close relationships” and “social integration.” Close relationships are people you can call on for a small short-term loan, who will call the doctor if needed, and those you know who will sit with you when you’re going through an emotionally rough patch. Social integration is the amount of engagement and interaction we have on a daily basis and has a lesser degree of intimacy and vulnerability, but still impacts our mind/body world—for example, talking briefly with the person who passes you while walking their dog, or with the person who makes your coffee or sandwich, or being in a class and talking over ideas, etc.

Maybe it comes as no surprise to you that social isolation is one of the important factors leading not only to a shorter life but also to depression. Depression can lead us down the path of internal and/or external violence. It can feel like a debilitating vicious cycle. Once you’re feeling low, you may have less energy and tend to have fewer and fewer involvements and exchanges, of the daily variety, or of the more substantive meaty variety of a close friend. And then you tend to get even more isolated, and your inner world becomes ripe for depression.

This is perhaps an extreme example of this, but I’m always struck after a school shooting about how isolation and not feeling part of the social fabric that the shooter likely was experiencing. My niece was at the school shooting at Columbine High School 19 years ago. When asked what the latest Florida shooting brought to her mind, she replied, “Weeks like this remind me of why a community is so important, that you are responsible for each other as a whole community.”

Many schools understand this and provide a lot of diverse opportunities for student involvementin its community. However, once out of school, it can become harder to figure out ways to feel and be connected to others, to develop friendships, be part of community network in order to decrease a sense of isolation.

Here’s where therapy can be of help. Addressing depression and taking steps to be involved with those around us is often not easy to figure out how to do on your own as there can be many underlying and unrecognizable causes hindering this. Building relationships that are satisfying can be a challenge. Individual therapy can be an important place to explore your relationships and to grow a better understanding of how they can be improved.

By Dr. Callae Walcott-Rounds