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The unintended consequences of social distancing

The everyday measures in place to protect us against the corona virus have slowed the pandemic. Experts agree that social distancing, quarantine and isolation are the best defense in the fight against Covid 19. And we are seeing the result of our efforts pay off.

My concern, however, lies in the unintended risks associated with social distancing. I worry that unless we raise awareness and take action, we will be facing the dire consequences of yet another public health threat - a loneliness epidemic.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a subjective feeling that one is alone in the world, and without any meaningful connection.

I became acquainted with the literature on loneliness years ago, as it has direct implications for my research on aging and retirement. In a short time, however, I learned that loneliness and isolation are not issues relegated to the retired, elderly, or widowed.

Loneliness affects us all. No one is immune, and it matters little if you have 500 Facebook friends or 100 Instagram followers. Dr. John Cacioppo, the world’s foremost authority on loneliness, maintains that the number of people in your life does not inoculate you from experiencing loneliness. Rather, it’s the feeling of being alone in the world that places the brain and body at risk.

Dr. Cacioppo equates feeling lonely with feeling hungry. We compromise our survival and well-being when either is ignored.

When our tummies make a loud rumbling sound it’s a signal we should eat. It is a biological warning that we need sustenance. Likewise, when we feel lonely, we desire connection. That emotion is a cautionary sign to reach out to others.

Social science researchers have been studying the ravaging effects of loneliness on the brain and body for decades. It turns out that loneliness is far more likely to kill than is pollution, booz, or obesity! Yes – you read that correctly.

In 2017, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the US at the time, wrote an article about the global loneliness epidemic and the costs associated with this mental state. Dr. Murthy points out, “we’re wired for human connection that can counter the damaging biological effects of stress and anxiety”.

So, how do we nurture connection and decrease loneliness in the time of Covid?

Luckily, we live in an age in which we can meet on digital platforms and meaningfully connect with other humans. Here are a few ideas as to how to connect and not risk contagion.

1. Use video platforms such as zoom, facetime or skype to visually connect with loved ones. Visual cues help facilitate bonding

2. Write a short email, note or post genuinely expressing your admiration, enthusiasm or gratitude for someone. Not only will this kindness improve the recipient’s day, it has the added benefit of making you feel good!

3. Connect with a long-lost friend, or spend some time getting to know an acquaintance

Stay safe and healthy.

To your success!

Dr. Gill



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