Health Matters: Seeking Solidarity
Prison guards punish unruly inmates by putting them in solitary confinement; however, the amount of time they can keep an inmate away from others is limited because for extended periods, this type of social isolation is considered torture. Is it any wonder, then, that with so many people socially isolating to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there’s been an uptick in depression and anxiety?
Approximately 27 percent of adults in the United States, or about 32 million people, live alone—far more than in decades past and significantly more than in other countries where living with extended families is the norm and only 16 percent of adults live alone. So, when stay-at-home orders go into effect here, millions of people become completely isolated—and for a great many, that’s not healthy.
Spending all your time alone can lead to loneliness and isolation, which are related but different. Loneliness is a feeling of sadness caused by a yearning for belonging and connection with others. Isolation is a description of someone’s lack of interaction with others. You can be isolated without feeling lonely. You can feel lonely in a room full of people.
Together, loneliness and isolation can lead to a whole host of health-related problems, some of which are just as deadly as COVID-19. The human brain has a fantastic mechanism for managing short-term stress, be it physical or emotional. The fight-or-flight response is like nitrous for the brain. When an engine burns nitrous, its power output increases because it can burn fuel at a higher rate, but over time, burning nitrous will crack the engine block.
Similarly, when the brain is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, people get a boost in energy because cortisol helps regulate how the body uses blood sugar, fat, carbohydrates and protein, among other things. Over time, however, when people are under chronic stress, that useful burst of cortisol becomes a detriment. People experience increased blood pressure as vessels constrict, increased gastric acid production in the stomach, a suppressed immune system, and increased blood sugar that can lead to weight gain. Long-term exposure to stress hormones affects the brain's primary memory center, which can result in memory loss and impaired learning, and it can interrupt sleep, increase anxiety, and lead to major depression.
So, the question becomes: what are the ways we can decrease stress? Hopefully, scientists will develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but until then, how do we balance the need for humans to connect with each other with the need for safety precautions required to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
One of the ways people reduce stress during hard times is to share the experience with others—whether in person or simply through a sense of solidarity. During WWII, people planted victory gardens, rationed supplies, and learned skills that contributed to the war effort. Their sense of shared grief and sacrifice helped blunt the pain. When we make sacrifices together, it builds a sense of community. COVID-19 is a formidable enemy, one the whole human race should be united in fighting; yet, it has become politicized, undermining not only our ability to reduce its spread, but also our ability to connect with each other as humans. As a result, in addition to the stress of isolation and loneliness, people feel angry and betrayed at those they perceive aren’t in this fight with them, increasing that sense of isolation and helplessness.
If you’re feeling dejected, sad, and/or hopeless, consider making an appointment with a counselor. You can connect with us via telephone or video conferencing. Counselors can help you develop solutions that are a good fit for you. Although we may not be able to change the world around you, we can help you change how you feel about it, and sometimes, that’s enough.
Sean Re is a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.