Delhi

Don’t let the ‘social recession’ ruin your mental and physical health

Research suggests that social isolation can trigger increased heart rate, muscle tension, and lead to chronic conditions such as hypertension

Just after a few weeks of social distancing and self-isolation because of COVID-19, we have noticed the decline in our social interactions and might have felt the change in our mental and physical health. It is being called the ‘social recession’ — a collapse in our social contacts, matching the economic recession that is looming beyond COVID-19.

We thrive on our social engagements and are wired to stay connected; when these connections are threatened or unavailable, our nervous system goes haywire and many negative effects on the body follow. So much so that both loneliness (the feeling of being alone) and social isolation (physical state of being alone) can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes like increased heart rate, increased muscle tension and thickening of blood. Together these physiological changes are called the fight-or-flight response, because it has evolved as a survival mechanism enabling us to cope with physical and psychological threats.

The health risks

The uncertainty, fear of infection and lack of social interactions all can be perceived by our brains as a threat and can inadvertently switch our bodies to fight-or-flight mode. A recent meta-analysis published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews revealed that people who are more socially isolated have higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and fibrinogen (a soluble protein that helps blood to clot), both of which are associated with chronic inflammation and poor physical and mental health.

Another oft-cited study in Perspectives on Psychological Science indicated that lack of social connection and living alone can be detrimental to a person’s health, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%. They also pointed out that social isolation can lead to several chronic conditions like hypertension, increased heart rate, increased levels of stress hormones and even accelerated ageing.

Feelings are so idiosyncratic that it is often hard to gauge how one is feeling at a particular time. We don’t have to be physically alone to feel lonely, sometimes just lack of diversity in our social interactions can also make us feel alone. Chronic loneliness can manifest at any age and in many forms, from a simple feeling of exhaustion and fogginess, to interrupted sleep patterns, decreased appetite, body ache and pains; to feelings of anxiousness. Good news is, these signs disappear as soon as the quality and diversity of our social interaction improve.

Coping with isolation

Usually when things get tough, we tend to lean towards our personal relationships to seek their advice and support. Ironically, that is the very thing we cannot do in the current crisis. While there are no quick fix solutions to deal with increasing anxiety due to social isolation, there are ways we can smarten our approach to deal with it.

Begin by acknowledging that these are unprecedented times, unlike what we have seen before, hence, it is quite normal to feel anxious and lonely. It is important to know that the whole world is in the same state as us, and we are all in this together. Use this time to establish forgotten connections via technology and catch up with friends and family whom you may have been putting on the back burner because of your busy schedule. Most importantly, put the focus back on your self-care, eat well, exercise regularly, find ways to calm and focus yourself.

(Saher Mehdi is co-founder and chief scientist at wellOwise, India’s first precision health startup focusing on chronic diseases)

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 9:22:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/dont-let-the-social-recession-ruin-your-mental-and-physical-health/article31319862.ece

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