Social life The importance of staying social May 17 2021
Megan Blandford Author Megan Blandford Journalist

Having a good social life is fun, but did you know it can also be important for mental health too?

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but feeling lonely for a long time (social isolation) can have a negative effect on your mental health.

Who is affected by social isolation?

There are many possible causes for social isolation, including feeling disconnected from the community or other lifestyle factors, many of which can be associated with age.
 
“Everyone is susceptible to loneliness and social isolation, but older people are more susceptible,” says researcher Dr Debbie Faulkner from the University of Adelaide.
 
When you’re older, you’re more likely to:
  • have health issues
  • experience the death of a partner or close relative
  • mobility can be affected
  • move away from employment, making it harder to keep those friendships going or make new groups of friends

“It’s a time of life with significant life change, and those changes can result in social isolation,” Dr Faulkener says.

Alzheimer’s Australia’s report, Living with Dementia, suggests that social isolation can have a profound impact, with more than a third of dementia sufferers wishing they had more social contact with people in the community.

The health effects of social isolation

Social isolation can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health including:
 
  • Increased risk of becoming depressed, anxious or having panic attacks
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Substance abuse (excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, drugs)
  • Feeling tired or lack motivation

As the effects of social isolation are researched, the evidence is alarming. Faulkner explains, more than 100 studies worldwide on social isolation have some concerning results.

It found the absence of support in social relationships may be equivalent to the health effects of:

  • smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • drinking more than six alcoholic drinks a day
  • is more harmful than not exercising
  • twice as harmful as obesity
A solitary older man

Because life’s better when we’re connected 

If you feel lonely or you’re worried about becoming socially isolated, there are steps you can take to reconnect and give your social life some love. You can:
 
  • Call friends and family – give friends and family a call and let them know you are feeling a bit down and ask if they would like to catch up for a coffee. Don’t wait for them to contact you and make plans, it works both ways.
  • Get involved in the community – most local community centres organise classes and outings. Why not sign up for a cooking class or a woodwork workshop? I It’s a great way to get out of the house and meet like-minded people in the community. You can also learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer – put your skills to good use and volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to make friends and make a difference.
  • Get out and about – even small things like going for a walk in your local park or having a coffee in a nearby cafe is a good way to feel more connected. Try striking up a conversation with someone beside you.

If you’re feeling any anxiety about social situations, be sure to tell your GP how you’re feeling. They’ll be able to suggest support services to help you.

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Megan Blandford Author Megan Blandford Journalist Megan writes about health, travel, parenting and lifestyle.