Humans are wired for social connection. We thrive on face-to-face interactions and tend to feel our best when we are part of a group — whether that’s a team at work, a volunteer organization, or simply spending quality time with family or friends. However, major life changes like retiring, losing a loved one, moving away from friends or family, or aging can affect our ability to stay socially connected. You can also be at risk if you work from home, just had a baby and are on maternity leave, live in a rural area or by yourself, or don’t leave your home much.
It’s important to know that social isolation and loneliness don’t always go together — you can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, and you can be lonely without being socially isolated. And, it doesn't just affect older people. According to the Health Resources and Service Administration External Site, two in five Americans feel their social relationships aren't always meaningful and one in five say they regularly feel lonely.
Unfortunately, social isolation is not good news as far as your health is concerned. Studies have shown External Site that social isolation can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of developing dementia External Site, heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease or having a stroke. It should also come as no surprise that there’s a consistent link between social isolation and depression and anxiety, too.
If you’ve been feeling alone, here are some things you can do:
Use technology to stay in touch
The world is your oyster when it comes to ways you can stay connected to friends and family digitally. You can schedule regular video calls to maintain face-to-face interaction, stream online games to play together, or even watch movies in sync with a free browser extension External Site. While it’s no substitute for in-person interaction, seeing someone’s face via video chat can help brighten your spirits. If you don’t have access to technology or consider yourself to be tech-savvy, pick up the phone or write a letter to a friend, loved one, or neighbor instead — anything is better than nothing.
Cultivate new relationships
If you find that you’ve lost touch with friends or family members over the years, try to form new relationships with people who share a common interest. No matter your passion or interests — whether you like to knit or crochet, bake, or go antiquing — there’s an online group who share your interest. You can also find support groups online if you need to lean on the stories and advice of those in similar situations, like new parents or people dealing with chronic illness.
Being socially isolated and feeling lonely over a long period of time can increase production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to higher levels of inflammation and result in damage to your blood vessels and other tissues. If you’re stuck inside, do something that relaxes you at least once a day — whether that’s a few minutes of deep breathing and guided meditation or a heart-pumping workout. Try to stick to a daily routine as much as you can and remember to prioritize self-care.
Consider adopting a pet
Especially if you live on your own, a pet can provide comfort and companionship. If you don’t know whether you’re ready to make the commitment to adopt a pet, many local animal shelters have foster programs that temporarily place animals in your home to give them a break from a confined space.
Volunteer in your community
There will always be people in need in your community, and there are endless ways to help them, from packing meals at a food pantry to running errands for or spending time with seniors in assisted living facilities. If you’re unable to leave your house, look for digital volunteer opportunities External Site — many large organizations like the American Red Cross® have launched robust virtual volunteer programs so you can make an impact from wherever you are.
If you’ve tried any of the tips for staying connected and don’t feel any better, consider scheduling a virtual visit through Doctor On Demand®. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members can use their smartphone, tablet or computer to see an experienced doctor who can treat common conditions like the common cold or physical injuries, as well as mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and more. Before scheduling your visit, log in or register for myWellmark® Opens New Window to check your benefits.
Doctor On Demand physicians do not prescribe Drug Enforcement Administration-controlled substances, and may elect not to treat conditions or prescribe other medications based on what is clinically appropriate.
For plans that include benefits for mental health treatment, Doctor On Demand benefits may include treatment for certain psychological conditions, emotional issues and chemical dependency. Services performed by Doctor On Demand psychologists are covered. For more information, call Wellmark at the number on your ID card.
Doctor On Demand by Included Health is a separate company providing an online telehealth solution for Wellmark members. Doctor On Demand® is a registered mark of Doctor On Demand, Inc.