Why Knowing your Neighbour Matters: The Effects of Isolation
This article is the first of a series of articles on mental health from our partner Turn2me
Research with isolated populations such as soldiers, astronauts, and prisoners tell us that social skills can atrophy just like muscles that are not used.
If you are isolated from other people for an extended period, you will end up feeling awkward, socially anxious, and unable to tolerate what used to feel mundane.
This isn’t a mental disorder; rather, it’s a collective experience of those who are isolated and it’s happening to everyone who has had a decreased level of social contact due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Evolution has created a need for social contact in humans because it helps us to survive, much like our need for food and water. Without the support of social systems in ancient times, most individuals would fall prey to the elements, predators, etc.
Although things are not quite the same in modern times, most people still have a biological instinct to affiliate with a social network. Even the most socially anxious or introverted person probably wants to have social contact even though it can be hard at times.
This means that when we are denied our social needs, it can lead to consequences in terms of our mental, emotional, and physical health.
This can be true even if you have been isolated in the company of family members or another close-knit group, because you aren’t experiencing a full social network that you may have had previously, such as seeing people at the gym, talking with co-workers, or making random small talk with strangers.
This loneliness translates into real effects: feeling angry, tired, irritable, or sad. Even if you don’t consciously acknowledge that you are “lonely,” these other emotional reactions can be signs that you’ve been isolated for too long.
Get to know your neighbours, form friendships. Friendships can have a major impact on your health and well-being, but it's not always easy to build or maintain friendships.
Neighbours and friends also play a significant role in promoting your overall health. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Studies have even found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.
Many adults find it hard to develop new friendships or keep up existing friendships. Friendships may take a back seat to other priorities, such as work or caring for children or aging parents. You and your friends may have grown apart due to changes in your lives or interests. Or maybe you've moved to a new community and haven't yet found a way to meet your neighbours and other new people.
Developing and maintaining good friendships takes effort. The enjoyment and comfort friendship can provide, however, makes the investment worthwhile.
Quality counts more than quantity. While it's good to cultivate a diverse network of friends and acquaintances, you also want to nurture a few truly close friends who will be there for you through thick and thin.
It's possible that you've overlooked potential friends who are already in your social network. Think through people you've interacted with — even very casually — who made a positive impression.
You may find potential friends among people with whom:
- You've worked or taken classes
- You've been friends in the past, but have since lost touch
- You've enjoyed chatting with at social gatherings
- You share family ties
If anyone stands out in your memory as someone you'd like to know better, reach out. Ask mutual friends or acquaintances to share the person's contact information, or — even better — to reintroduce the two of you with a text, email or in-person visit. Extend an invitation to coffee or lunch.
To meet new people who might become your friends, you must go to places where others are gathered. Don't limit yourself to one strategy for meeting people. The broader your efforts, the greater your likelihood of success.
Persistence also matters. Take the initiative rather than waiting for invitations to come your way and keep trying. You may need to suggest plans a few times before you can tell if your interest in a new friend is mutual.
For example, try several of these ideas:
- Attend community events. Look for groups or clubs that gather around an interest or hobby you share. These groups are often listed in the newspaper or on community bulletin boards. There are also many websites that help you connect with new friends in your neighbourhood or city. Do a Google search using terms such as [your city] + social network, or [your neighbourhood] + meetups.
- Offer your time or talents at a hospital, place of worship, museum, community centre, charitable group or other organization. You can form strong connections when you work with people who have mutual interests.
- Extend and accept invitations. Invite a neighbour or friend to join you for coffee or lunch. When you're invited to a social gathering, say yes. Contact someone who recently invited you to an activity and return the favour.
- Take up a new interest. Take a college or community education course to meet people who have similar interests. Join a class at a local gym, senior centre or community fitness facility.
- Join a faith community. Take advantage of special activities and get-to-know-you events for new members.
- Take a walk. Grab your kids or pet and head outside. Chat with neighbours who are also out and about or head to a popular park and strike up conversations there.
- Join a support group: Turn2me run a number of weekly safe, confidential and anonymous online / instant chat groups. https://turn2me.ie/landing/support-groups/adults
Above all, stay positive. You may not become friends with everyone you meet but maintaining a friendly attitude and demeanour can help you improve the relationships in your life and sow the seeds of friendship with new acquaintances.
Developing and maintaining healthy friendships involves give-and-take. Sometimes you're the one giving support, and other times you're on the receiving end. Letting friends know you care about them and appreciate them can help strengthen your bond. It's as important for you to be a good friend as it is to surround yourself with good friends. Remember, it's never too late to build new friendships or reconnect with old friends. Investing time in making friends and strengthening your friendships can pay off in better health and a brighter outlook for years to come. So, reach out and get to know your neighbours.
- Oluwafemi FA, Abdelbaki R, Lai JC, Mora-Almanza JG, Afolayan EM. A review of astronaut mental health in manned missions: Potential interventions for cognitive and mental health challenges. Life Sci Space Res (Amst). 2021;28:26-31. doi:10.1016/j.lssr.2020.12.002
- Wilson RE, et al. Personality and friendship satisfaction in daily life: Do everyday social interactions account for individual differences in friendship satisfaction? European Journal of Personality. 2015;29:173.
- Ong AD, et al. Loneliness and health in older adults: A mini-review and synthesis. Gerontology 2016;62:443.
- O'Connell BH, et al. Enhancing social relationships through positive psychology activities: A randomised controlled trial. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2016;11:149.
- Hall-Flavin D (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 9, 2016.
- Thoits PA. Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2011;52:145.