While you may not be physically isolated in today’s world, you may be socially. According to the National Institutes of Health, social isolation is defined as a lack of social contacts or having few people to interact with regularly. There are many potential causes, including but not limited to:
Mental health: If you’re struggling with mental health, it is easy to feel alone or isolated. Whether it’s because you don’t have the energy to meet up with people, you don’t want to “burden” others with your problems, you don’t know how to open up, or something else, mental health can easily go hand-in-hand with social isolation. Especially if you’re dealing with social anxiety.
Moving away: Sometimes we can’t predict nor choose where life will lead us, and sometimes, unfortunately, that means taking us away from friends or family. Or they move away from us. Losing your support system and those important relationships can definitely make you feel more socially isolated and alone.
Living alone and/or can’t leave home: Living alone means more time being physically alone. It often takes extra effort to ensure continual interaction takes place and social isolation doesn't occur. On another note, if you’re not able to leave your home for something such as a medical issue, that can also easily create feelings of isolation.
Busyness: We can’t deny that life these days is getting busier and busier. Sometimes we truly don’t have time to meet up and catch up with people. And other times, we don’t feel like moving things around or dropping other tasks to make the time.
Easier to scroll: I think sometimes we choose scrolling on our phones over interacting with others. Because it’s easier. No matter how much we love the people we have in our lives, it takes time, effort, and energy to build and maintain those relationships. Much more than say laying down and scrolling through Instagram. But doing that also furthers us from people and important in-person connections.
Virtual life: During the pandemic, most of life as we know it became even more digital—school, jobs, grocery shopping, family gatherings. And 3 years later, so much still remains virtual. All of this has reduced in-person interactions and our ability to connect with others face-to-face, thus increasing feelings of social isolation.
The Digital Age
Anyone living today can see that we are living in the digital age. Yet, in a world that is more connected than ever, we somehow seem to be the most disconnected we’ve ever been. More lonely than we’ve ever been. And you can bet that plays a huge role in the problem of social isolation.
Many “social” interactions in the digital world are from people online; people you’ve never met and will never meet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with connecting with people in this way—it’s a big part of our lives. The problem becomes when you substitute in-person, tangible relationships for those hidden behind a screen. Connecting solely digitally is often especially an issue for older populations who didn't grow up with this technology and digitally-connected world. They might not be able to keep up with the digital interactions.
Even with all of the amazing things technology has brought us (I mean, hey, it allows us to do what we do), technology cannot replace interpersonal relationships and connecting with others on a deeper level.
Why Social Isolation is Harmful
With this, you might be thinking, “what’s the big deal?”...especially if you’re an introvert or love not having to interact with others. We get that. However, being socially isolated or not regularly interacting with people can actually have harmful effects on our overall well being. In fact, emotional pain can activate the same stress response and reaction in the body as physical stress.
From a physical standpoint, social isolation can increase risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and weakened immunity, among other things. Mentally, it can increase risk for poor cognitive function, anxiety and depression, and dementia.1 Also, when you’re physically isolated, it’s likely you may get too little exercise or sleep, or consume more drugs and alcohol—all things which are not healthy for your mind or body.
Importance of Connection
There are numerous great benefits of being connected to a community. But sometimes I think we focus a lot more on the quantity of connections, friends, or people in our social circles than the quality. It’s not that it’s bad to have or want to have a lot of friends or people in your community. However, if we focus solely on quantity, we miss a big piece of the connection equation. After all, it doesn’t matter how many people you can spend time with if you don’t feel you have anyone you can call or open up to when life gets really tough, or none of those people deeply know and love you.
As Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker, said, “It’s not the number of connections a person has that’s most important; instead, it’s the quality of a person’s connections that matters most.”2 We all have primary and secondary connections. Primary social connections are those who are closest to us, know us the best, and who we interact with almost every day in some capacity. These tend to be friends, family members, and partners. Secondary social connections are those we interact with every so often or rarely on a deeper level—people such as colleagues, neighbors, or acquaintances. And, in the current digital age, most online connections tend to be secondary as well.
Now, digital and secondary connections can lead to primary, so it’s not always a bad place to start. But the goal should be to move into a primary connection where you regularly interact with them—preferably in person or at least over the phone so you’re not stuck hiding behind a screen. Because when it comes to the digital age we live in, the online space or social media platforms often offer relatively superficial connections. Surface-level interactions and relationships don’t offer us a lot of hope or help, especially when we’re going through something tough.
What Churches Care is Doing
Because of everything I’ve shared thus far, we truly believe in the importance of combating social isolation in this digital age. Our goal is to connect you with someone who not only understands what you’re going through and cares about you, but also someone you can have a real conversation with, not just digital footprints. We aim to introduce you to someone from one of our partners who is local to you so that you have that option to move into an in-person conversation and connection, if both people are able to and feel comfortable—someone who can walk with you through the hard times life throws your way.
With that said, we give our churches, ministry partners, and AACC counselors tools to help them connect with people digitally through SMS. We do understand that digital communication and interaction is a huge part of all of our lives. Our goal is to help the person you connect with meet you where you’re at in the digital space and begin forming a connection.
Lastly, we often nudge towards community and in-person engagement when you’re ready. Not that it’s a requirement, but rather we believe in the importance of being physically with and among people as we walk through life. This especially allows those struggling to get and stay connected by finding groups, people, or activities they fit into based on their needs and where they’re at in life.
How to Get or Stay Connected
We understand that getting and staying connected with people can be hard—especially when so much of our lives can be done digitally. To combat social isolation, we have to make a conscious (and sometimes extra) effort to reach out, and create and sustain in-person relationships. Below are some tips to help you stay connected or interact more regularly with the people in your life:
Push to meet someone in-person to catch up. Rather than just calling, texting, interacting on social media platforms, etc., ask someone to meet up and catch up (as long as you already know them—remember internet safety!). Even if it’s just 1-2 times a month, that can greatly increase your chances of fighting social isolation and feeling more satisfied in your relationships.
Pick an activity you enjoy and find someone or a group to do it with. While there is nothing wrong with solo activities, there are often so many unique ways to do those same activities with others. A group fitness class, trying different coffee shops, and painting are all great examples.
Go first in reaching out. It can be scary to make the first move—even platonically—with someone. But learning and getting more comfortable with reaching out and asking others to do something together or meet up for coffee to catch up will do nothing but help you. On top of that, you’re likely also benefiting that person who might also be struggling with feeling alone or isolated.
While the digital age has certainly improved many aspects of life, such as access to communication, it also has increased social isolation. If you’re feeling alone or isolated, you’re definitely not alone or weird for feeling that way. It’s a natural human response because we were created to be in community.
If you feel you’re physically isolated and don't have a community, we’d love to help you get connected and plugged into a community near you. If not, we hope this information and these tips at least helped you step out of your comfort zone and combat social isolation. You’re never alone in this!