Why your social life is more important than you think

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 some health issues, experience the death of a partner or close relative, your mobility can be affected, and you 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.”

A report released by Alzheimer’s Australia also suggest that social isolation can have a profound impact on people living with dementia, with more than a third of the dementia sufferers taking the survey responding that they wished 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 more widely researched, the evidence is stacking up in an alarming fashion. As Faulkner explains, a study reviewing over 100 studies worldwide on social isolation had some concerning results.
“[It found] the absence of support in social relationships is equivalent to the health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking more than six alcoholic drinks daily, and is more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.”

Elderly man sitting alone in park

Because life’s better when we’re connected 

If you feel lonely or are worried you’re becoming socially isolated, there are steps you can take to reconnect. Why not:
  • 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 for those in the area. Why not sign up for a cooking class or a woodwork workshop, it’s a great excuse to get out of the house and meet likeminded people in the community – you can also learn a new skill. 
  • Volunteer – why not put your skills to good use and volunteer? Volunteering is a great way to make friends and also 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. 
  • Speak to your GP – Tell your GP how you are feeling, they will be able to suggest services to help support you. 
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