Social isolation can contribute toward many emotional, behavioural and physical disorders including anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, addictions, substance abuse, violent behaviour and overall disease.
When it comes to physical illness, "The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors. However, our understanding of how and why social isolation is risky for health—or conversely—how and why social ties and relationships are protective of health, still remains quite limited." -- [(Reference 2)]
The research of Brummett (Reference 3 below) shows that social isolation is unrelated to a wide range of measures of demographic factors, disease severity, physical functioning, and psychological distress. Hence, such factors can not account for or explain the substantial deleterious effects of social isolation.
However, they also show that isolated individuals report fewer interactions with others, fewer sources of psychological/emotional and instrumental support, and lower levels of religious activity. The obvious question is whether adjusting for one or more of these factors reduces the association of social relationships/isolation with health. Which factors constitute the active ingredient in social isolation producing its deleterious effects on health?
First is the idea that isolation from others is anxiety arousing or stressful in and of itself, producing physiological arousal and changes, which if prolonged, can produce serious morbidity or mortality; and, conversely that affiliation or contact with others reduces or modulates physiological arousal, both, in general and in the presence of stress and other threats to health. A growing body of evidence from experimental studies of animals and humans is consistent with this hypothesis.
A second hypothesis is that social relationships beneficially affect health, not only because of their supportiveness, but also because of the social control that others exercise over a person, especially by encouraging health-promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and compliance with medical regimes or by discouraging health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive eating, alcohol consumption, or drug abuse.
Another hypothesis is that social ties link people with diffuse social networks that facilitate access to a wide range of resources supportive of health, such as medical referral networks, access to others dealing with similar problems, or opportunities to acquire needed resources via jobs, shopping, or financial institutions. These effects are different from support in that they are less a function of the nature of immediate social ties but rather of the ties these immediate ties provide to other people.
With the advent of online social networking communities, there are increasing options. Chat rooms, message boards, and other types of communities are now meeting the need for those who would rather stay home alone to do so yet still develop communities of online friends.
New offerings have even begun addressing the specific issue of social isolation by acting as a resource for facilitation of phone-based peer counseling sessions among members. Members are taught how to offer one another Compassionate Listening and other types of supportive peer counseling and are then provided with the software they need to confidentially trade free sessions. Ostensibly participation would not only increase social contact opportunities for the members, but also enhance their relationships outside the community by helping them develop better communication skills.
2. - Psychosomatic Medicine 63:273-274 (2001) © 2001 American Psychosomatic Society See Article
3. - Brummett BH, Barefoot JC, Siegler IC, Clapp-Channing NE, Lytle BL, Bosworth HB, Williams RB Jr, Mark DB. Characteristics of socially isolated patients with coronary artery disease who are at elevated risk for mortality.