By TWS resident Neuroscientist Dr. Hayley North
How does social isolation impact your wellbeing and what are the top tips to combat loneliness?
What is social isolation?
Humans are inherently social beings; our brains are wired to seek out and grow from interactions with others. In fact, science shows social interaction is crucial for our survival, it may be a case of social life or death.
So, what is it? Social isolation has been defined as a lack of meaningful contact with your social network or community (1). This can be a reality all too often for sailors like us, who have spent months or years away from our friends and family. Social isolation is at an all-time high due to COVID-19 travel restirctions and stay-at-home orders.
What are the impacts?
Social isolation is associated with an increased risk for depression, poor sleep, and increased stress (2). Social isolation can have these effects by activating our stress system (called the HPA axis) and activating the sympathetic nervous system- which basically means our bodies are prepared for a fight with increased heart rate, constricted blood vessels, and higher levels of stress signaling hormones (such as cortisol).
In older adults, social isolation significantly contributes to increased disease prevalence and higher rates of mortality from disease (3). This higher susceptibility to disease and higher rates of mortality in those experiencing social isolation is likely caused by the effects of social isolation on inflammation. Inflammation involves the release of a lot of special molecules and cells that work together to carry out important jobs for keeping our body safe from pathogens and repairing the damage. The research shows that social isolation reduces our ability to control inflammation and is associated with dysregulated inflammation markers in the blood (4).
What can we do to combat loneliness?
The good news is that social interactions can counteract these terrible impacts. Social interactions increase our endorphins which also make us feel happy. Simple ways to increase endorphins include telling stories, sharing a meal, laughter, singing, dancing, and physical touch (2).
Here are a few tips for ways to counter social isolation at sea
While we may not be able to interact with our land-based social network/community, a life at sea is an amazing opportunity to connect with new people and those people often share similar outlooks on life as we do, which can foster stronger connections from the get-go. Sometimes we may feel hesitation or awkwardness approaching that new boat at an anchorage, but next time that hesitation strikes keep this fact in mind: studies show that most people feel happy after talking with strangers, but ironically most people wrongly assume that other people would prefer not to have a chat with a stranger (5). Sharing a glass of red wine (in moderation) even has its own health benefits- turns out that red wine has antioxidants that are great for brain health.
Be a part of a community
Find ways to connect with the locals if you’re in a new area. A good ice breaker is to just ask a simple question, like where’s the best spot in town to buy fresh veggies. You never know where that conversation may go, but worst case, you might find some yummy fresh food.
Seek new experiences
Our brains use a lot of energy, so they have evolved to opt for energy-saving activities, which you may experience as seeking the ‘lazy or easy’ option. However, pushing against that tendency and challenging our brains to learn new things, solve problems or adapt to novelty are all ways to keep our brain healthy and functioning well into the future (7). Giving in to the easy option too often can increase the risk for cognitive decline and things like dementia when we age. One great way to challenge our brains and seek novelty is through social interactions! Just think about it, we can’t predict what other people are going to say so we have to use a lot of brain activity to keep up and respond appropriately.
Think outside the box
With better internet coverage there are more ways than ever to be connected. Some studies show video calls have similar benefits as face-to-face interactions (7). Contributing to an online community with like-minded people could be a great creative outlet for you to discuss ideas for your unique hobbies and lifestyle.
Humans are inherently social beings, yet the sailing life can at times be isolating for some of us. There are some pretty extreme negative impacts of social isolation including increased risk for depression, poor sleep, stress, and the regulation of the immune system leading to higher disease probability and mortality rates. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to combat this, such as swapping stories and laughs with other salty sailors, meeting locals at your new anchorage, and using the internet to connect with friends and family back home or participate in online communities sharing your unique hobbies.
Dr. Hayley North
Hayley is a neuroscientist and a keen sailor, she learned to sail in high-stakes yacht races in and around Sydney Habour, but it is the cruising lifestyle that she resonates with. As a scientist, she has spent over a decade studying the human brain with major contributions to the field of understanding the biological underpinnings of mental health disorders. She believes that by understanding our brains, we have unlimited potential to alleviate suffering and improve all aspects of our wellbeing and that’s why she is passionate about communicating the latest neuroscience research to people on shores near and far.
For more Hayley North insights
1. Victor, C., Scambler, S., Bond, J., & Bowling, A. (2000). Being alone in later life: loneliness, social isolation and living alone. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 10(4), 407-417.
2. Bzdok, D., & Dunbar, R. I. (2020). The neurobiology of social distance. Trends in cognitive sciences, 24(9), 717-733.
3. Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Norman, G. J., & Berntson, G. G. (2011). Social isolation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231(1), 17.
4. Smith, K. J., Gavey, S., RIddell, N. E., Kontari, P., & Victor, C. (2020). The association between loneliness, social isolation and inflammation: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 112, 519-541.
5. Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980
6. Tedesco, I., Russo, M., Russo, P., Iacomino, G., Russo, G. L., Carraturo, A., ... & Palumbo, R. (2000). Antioxidant effect of red wine polyphenols on red blood cells. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 11(2), 114-119.
7. Eagleman, D. (2020). Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain. Canongate Books.