Insights into Psychology

What Is… Social Isolation & Social Support

Social isolation and social support - graphic of tree with helping hands

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is social isolation.

Social isolation involves an objective removal from social contact and relationships, which may occur voluntarily or involuntarily. The term perceived social isolation is used to include a subjective sense of loneliness. While loneliness and social isolation may occur together, that’s not always the case.

An obvious way to consider social isolation is to look at how many people are in someone’s support network. Another important factor is the functional role those people play in terms of the social support that they can (or are willing to) provide. Social support can come in a number of forms, which can be divided into four broad categories: emotional (nurturing), informational, companionship, or tangible, more hands-on kinds of support. This support may come from personal and professional sources (i.e. informal and formal).  Someone who’s socially isolated may have a lack of support across multiple domains.

It makes a difference whether one is talking about perceived support vs. actual support. Perceived social support is associated with better mental health outcomes, but there’s not the same association with actual received support. Relational regulation theory suggests that this may because interacting with others through everyday conversations that suit an individual’s personal taste help to promote emotional regulation, thus improving coping abilities.

There are multiple factors that can contribute to social isolation, including both environmental factors and personal factors like personality traits. Mental illness can also have a major impact.

Potential consequences of social isolation, regardless of age, include:

  • weakened immune system
  • poor sleep quality
  • increased risk of depression, dementia, heart disease, stroke
  • decreased quality of life

The increase in risk is similar to what’s seen with obesity or smoking.

Canadian figures show that 20% of older adults are socially isolated.  Australian figures show that 9.5% of the population over age 15 report a lack of social support, with the highest rates  reported at 11.7% in the 55-59 age bracket. Those under age 25 had the lowest rates of being socially isolated at 7.1%, and then in the 25-29 age bracket, the rate jumped to 11%.

It appears that pet ownership may increase social contact and thereby reduce isolation, although that would likely depend quite a bit on the type of animal. My guinea pigs don’t get out much, although when they do they tend to attract attention. Still, the kind of emotional support that they do provide is significant.

With the current pandemic situation, many people are facing enforced isolation in a physical sense. If this was happening in the pre-internet days, it would be quite a bit harder, but as it is, most of us are still able to access some level of social support.

However, certain forms of social support don’t work well online, including physical affection and hands-on, practical assistance. For people who live alone, this is likely to be more of an issue.

Personally, with where my illness is at now, my preference is isolation in a physical sense. Regardless of the public health situation, I get some forms of social support online, some in my in-person world, and others not at all. I very rarely feel lonely, and feel quite comfortable in my fortress of solitude. In terms of the risk of negative health effects, I think any impact would be minor compared to the effects of the depression.

Has social isolation been an issue for you before the pandemic? Have the current restrictions caused major changes in the social support that you’re able to access?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


COVID-19/mental health coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.

38 thoughts on “What Is… Social Isolation & Social Support”

  1. For me, I have a propensity to isolate. Interestingly enough, since Inbegan blogging, it has gotten better. I also want to comment on the four type of support in your post. I think to have someone that touches upon more than one category is a blessing. I am grateful for my network of supporters. Thank you for the post!

  2. You are so right that this social distancing stuff would be so much harder pre-internet. Everything was harder then!!

    For me, I used to have no friends, no support, no anyone; and it was horrible. I’ve always been grateful for everyone I have, so this led to my tendency to see the best in people when it wasn’t there. ‘Cause, like, I’d say, “Oh, he’s a good friend,” or, “Oh, she’s a great youth leader,” when there was evidence staring me in the face that said otherwise, because it was harder to believe that everyone I knew was just… inherently uncaring due to whatever personality issue: pathological self-absorption, lack of empathy, snobbishness, etc., etc. And people say, “The only common denominator in all your relationships is you,” so then you start to blame yourself and figure you’re unlovable or inherently flawed somehow…? But I see so clearly now that I have great people in my life that the problem was never me. (Well, I’m not saying I was perfect, just that no one around me valued relationships or had good priorities/values that I’d approve of.) So often in advice columns, the advice is, “Get the heck away from that person! He/she’s a bad friend or significant other. Can’t you see the signs?” But that’s easier said than done if everyone you’ve ever known was that flawed. I’m just so glad those days are behind me, like for seriousness. Great blog post!

  3. Ive been isolated for the last 4 years due to the relationship I was/am in so things haven’t changed much for me in that aspect. I don’t have a physical support system other than my pets. My support system exists completely online or through text. That is something I hope will change once I’m able to be on my own.

  4. For me the loneliness is hard. It can make me crazy a bit. I am pretty much a loner but I think I overdid it the last few years and facing all of life challenges through the years made it harder for me. I felt so utterly responsible for everything, the good, the bad and the ugly.
    I appreciate and value my online contacts because it is easier in a way and more consistent for me as I can’t go out and meet up with friends every week. It takes too much out of me.
    I now have more support than ever in my life and I’m glad I don’t need to worry about everything myself. So I do need others, I know that and I’m accepting that step by step.
    With covid-19 I’m doing well, I’m happy sometimes that I don’t need to go out and I can wear my leggings and favorite sweater all day. I think that one day those leggings will become a part of my legs! 😊

    1. I think my leggings might already be a part of my legs. Or maybe the forest of leg hair I haven’t shaved in forever keeps legs and leggings separate…

      1. Just to be cuddly and warm, nothing wrong with that! I find it easier in the winter but in summer there is some pressure to shave (for me at least). I’ll wear leggings ’till the heatwave comes and then I am presented with a problem. What is the summer equivalent of leggings? Shorts?

  5. Thank God for the internet. I have noticed the last few days that when I do see people they are extra friendly, almost everyone waving or yelling hello. I wonder if this quarantine isolation is making everyone miss interaction with others?

  6. We left home for therapy, and now we don’t. Since Older Child is home, we go bird watching a lot. That may change when Older Child’s friends come off quarantine during the next week. Birding is still allowed under the new rules. We don’t feel comfortable in the crowds, which weren’t there a few weeks ago, so we will see…

    We have a pen pal, in addition to interwebs.

    Concentrating is challenging because the fear is so intense and large, like a dangerous bubble.

    1. Bird watching is so grounding. I guess it’s mating season for woodpeckers, because my little guy has been drumming up a storm on my bbq every morning. It’s fascinating how life goes on as normal in nature even while humans are in crisis mode.

  7. Wow…now I know the different kinds of support systems are needed…hehe. I didnt have any except paid doctors. Now, as I heal, I am craving human interaction, although nervous. This here is the next best thing…thank you Ashley for keeping an eye on me! 😉

  8. Yes, this isolation would have been so much harder pre-internet. But like you, I tend to physically isolate a lot. The quarantine didn’t change my social life too much because my closest friends live in other states and we communicate by texting and video chatting anyway. It’s interesting that pet ownership plays a role in isolation…now that I think of it, the people that I got along best with at work also have cats! ^__^

  9. Social isolation used to really get me down. After I started medication to help my anxiety and depression I realized that it wasn’t the social isolation getting me down, it was my mind. I do love being isolated physically with some sort of interaction with those in closest with.

  10. I used to be socially isolated. Many years of that. Now I’m happier because I definitely have more perceived AND actual social support online. I feel a lot less lonely, for sure. <3

    "It makes a difference whether one is talking about perceived support vs. actual support."
    This is interesting! Sometimes we perceive we have less support than actually, and vice versa too.

  11. Before and during this pandemic, I have been ignoring quite a number of phone messages. Most of the times, I never read the messages and deleted them. I am also reluctant to accept calls. For a few (not many) people, I do reply them because I feel comfortable communicating with them. I feel that I am very fragile after self-harming that I easily get pissed off or frightened even for a little negative sign in the friendship. And I do not feel motivated to solve the possible problem based on the sign. Instead, I become very passive and end up isolating myself to prevent the possible hurts. I would rather turn the world off. It feels more comfortable and safe here. I cry less. My mood is more stable and I can manage my emotions better. However, it seems that I talk face-to-face very, very less nowadays. I think maybe not even 10 sentences per day. The exception is during my classes or online teaching sessions. However, I enjoy teaching and doing research while isolating myself. I clear my stress with physical exercise, food, sleep and music.

  12. I definitely think I’m coping better with isolation than I thought I would, but I guess that’s down to the fact the main thing I’m scared about (actually getting it myself) has essentially been taken out of the equation seeing as I’ve now been indoors for a month. I’ve been utilising Zoom and Skype these last few weeks which have really helped – my only fear now is when this lockdown starts to get lifted! x

    1. That’s good that Zoom and Skype are helping.

      I hope governments are careful about when they ease up on restrictions, and don’t do it too soon.

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