A recent study conducted by Martina Luchetti at Florida State University suggests that in response to the social distancing measures of the Covid-19 situation, people are feeling more socially connected and supported than expected. The study had a total of 1,500 people who participated from beginning to end, and consisted of three surveys filled out between February and May 2020. Overall, the study registered little significant change in the amounts of loneliness and social isolation experienced over the course of the lock-down period in the US. In fact, the largest significant result was that people seemed to be feeling more connected and better supported than before the disease control measures were implemented.
These findings are surprising given the concerns expressed by scientists and health officials before the social distancing was brought into effect, and the plethora of contradictory evidence which has been published in its wake. There is also good reason to doubt the accuracy of the study’s results. The study had a high dropout rate of nearly 60%. While a certain amount of dropout is expected, especially for longitudinal studies conducted online, it is important to note that the people who were most likely to drop out of the study were those with the highest loneliness scores on the first questionnaire. In other words, lonely people didn’t participate in the study about loneliness.
Broken Heart Syndrome
Other recently published research points in the opposite direction of the Luchetti study. Researchers in Cleveland have found an increased incidence of the stress-related heart condition Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as Broken Heart Syndrome (BHS). This short-duration illness is often mistaken for a heart attack, and is directly related to acute and traumatic physical and social stressors, including physical injury, asthma attacks, job loss, bereavement, and divorce. The incidence of BHS diagnosis among people going to hospital for heart problems in recent months has risen from 1.7% to 7.8%, an increase of 450%. This suggests that the multi-layered stresses of the Covid pandemic and its ensuing shortages and lock-downs are being experienced by some as psychologically traumatic enough to cause heart problems.
Chronic Stress and Respiratory Disease
The health impacts of “risky behaviors” like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and poor sleeping habits are well known and long established. However, a growing body of research would add two items to the list: psychological stress and a lack of supportive social connections. This research has found that chronic stress and social isolation increase our vulnerability to common colds, influenza, and respiratory disease in general. The review’s author argues strongly that the isolation and stress of the current situation could also increase susceptibility to contracting the corona virus and developing Covid-19. This also aligns neatly with the findings that not only do corona-isolated older adults suffer more acutely from loneliness-related psychiatric symptoms, but they also have more severe Covid symptoms if they contract the virus.
Resilience, or Social Advantage?
Viewed in this context, Luchetti’s study seems only to be demonstrating what we already know: resilient people with robust social networks are more open to social engagement and participation in psychological studies, and less susceptible to the negative psychological effects of the Covid pandemic. In other words, if you come from a socially advantaged position, you are less susceptible to getting the virus, your symptoms will be milder if you do happen to become ill, and you will suffer less psychological hardship as a result of it.
- People are showing remarkable emotional resilience during Covid: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200622095016.htm
- Broken Heart Syndrome rise: 450% since beginning of social distancing: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200709141603.htm
- Succeptibility to respiratory disease mediated by social connectedness and lifestyle choice: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200709113521.htm
- Loneliness is a threat to human survival: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200609104253.htm
- Older adults have worse corona symptoms than connected older adults: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200521151904.htm
- Lonely older adults have higher psychiatric symptoms: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200609111056.htm