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Effects of isolation on the human psyche – Part 1

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Introduction
A few months ago I wrote about the devastating effects of stress. Understanding that topic should serve as a bulwark to us surviving as a social species. Our social networks (families, tribes, communities, internet, etc.) has enabled us to survive and thrive. Our existence was served by the evolutionary development of behaviors and the physiological mechanisms (neural, hormonal, cellular, genetics) that support social interactions (Cacioppo et al., 2011). In other words, we as humans are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. My mother is a widow, 83 years of age. She lives with my younger sister and her family in Lagos even though she has a house in our village. We as a family made a decision to prevent isolation by geography and crippling loneliness. Life in itself must be recognized as a trial and jumping through every conceivable hoop alone will increase our anxiety and hinder our coping ability. This is because we are “programmed” to need social networks. It is logical therefore that the absence of social networks may impose stress on our minds and bodies which is unhealthy.

The case of Joyce Carol Vincent
No one checked up on her for three whole years. Her body was discovered after the Building Officials invaded her home on a repossession order. The year was 2006 when they finally took possession of her place. Once they entered into the apartment, a pile of mail greeted them in the front entrance and the apartment was covered with spider webs from the ceiling to the floor. The news of this young, attractive young lady was widely publicized in the British press and shocked many people who read about it. For three years her body lay in her apartment, all alone, with the television still on. She was surrounded by Christmas gifts; it appeared that she was still in the midst of wrapping them. But yet, she lay dead without anyone caring about her whereabouts. Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found lying on her living room sofa. Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She had to be identified from dental records. After the Building Officials made the grisly discovery, many questions started to arise. It begs the questions ……… Who was she? Why hadn’t the electric and heating companies cut off her services? Why hadn’t the neighbors smelled her decomposing body? And most importantly, where were her family and friends?

Connectivity Types
Our social connections break down into three basic types of ties – core, significant and the weak. Core ties are the people with whom we are the closest. The immediate family in most cases come to mind. We are in frequent contact with them, we trust them and we turn to them when we need help or have questions. They’re among our strongest relationships. Significant ties are the people outside of our core ties who are still connected. These are friends, maybe from childhood. There is less frequency of contact than family and we turn to them less for advice or assistance. They’re weaker than our core ties but a bit more than casual acquaintances. Significant ties may be important at times, when we need to reach outside of our core tie network for help. Finally we have the weak ties, who because of today’s social networks have telescoped. This explosion has positioned them to keep reminding us of our existence and in certain situations provide us with the most benefit.

The importance of human connectivity
Have you ever wished someone could just disappear? It is a testament that as humans, during our interactions ‘rub’ each other the wrong way, and we express our approval or disapproval. But these same people maybe in a different context could also be our source of comfort. Still, rejection by others psychologically wounds us more deeply than almost anything else, (belonging – third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and research by neuroscientists reveals that ostracism can lead to feeling actual physical pain. Loneliness is a common emotion when someone feels alone, separated from others or unsupported and distressed. This is more pronounced later in life when social resources decline and illness accumulates, having a profound effect on independence. The need to bond with one another cannot be exaggerated. We need one another to regulate not only our emotions but our bodies as well. Not all people who live alone will describe themselves as lonely. But when living alone leads to social isolation there are health consequences.


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