Study: Even as States Open Up, People Feel Isolated

Two people social distancing.

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Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that Americans are reporting more feelings of social isolation even as states open up.
  • Increased social contact does not necessarily offer a quick fix after a year of social distancing.
  • Experts recommend taking your time easing into social interactions again to gradually overcome isolation.

During the pandemic, Americans were forced to socially isolate themselves as they kept their distance to curb the spread of the virus. But new research finds, that even as communities begin to open up, those feelings of isolation aren’t budging.

A new study finds that the level of social isolation among Americans increased last month even as states and businesses opened up. The report defined an individual’s social isolation as having one or fewer people in their social circle who can provide financial, emotional, employment, or caring support when they need it.

It was a joint project of researchers from Harvard University, Rutgers University, Northeastern University, and Northwestern University.

Although the level of social isolation steadily decreased since the beginning of the year, it began to increase once again despite vaccinations and the reopening of the economy.

Social support is especially crucial during this time. But researchers suggest that increased contact after months of physical distancing does not necessarily address the isolation many are feeling.

Why Do People Feel Isolated?

Americans may be feeling more isolated due to feelings of uncertainty around making social contact, experts say. Some individuals already feel comfortable enough to resume their activities and meet up with people, while others feel that it is too soon to abandon safety precautions. 

“One of the strange things about the current time is that we are in a limbo period, with people in very different emotional states with respect to the pandemic,” Elizabeth Stuart, PhD, associate dean for education and professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “Many people around the country are vaccinated, but not all are, and even among those who are vaccinated there are different levels of comfort and readiness to re-engage with others.”

Feelings of social isolation began decreasing in January, which may have been influenced by the start of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Now, more than 67% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one vaccine dose by June, but the pandemic is far from over.

Many Americans still face barriers to vaccination, and disparities can further aggravate how isolated they feel from others.

“Different people have had to deal with different challenges during the pandemic, whether that was the loss of friends or family, job loss or financial insecurity, or the challenges and conversation around racism in the U.S.,” Stuart says. “Because of that, this is a time when people may feel more alone than they did before when they might have felt that everyone was in a similar position as them. For some people, it may have been easier to stay home hunkered down—and not feel isolated when doing so—when they knew that their friends and family were doing the same.”

Does Increased Social Contact Help With Isolation?

According to the researchers, recovering from social isolation doesn’t necessarily stem from increased social contact.

In addition, increasing social contact is not always doable for everybody. People have different approaches in taking safety precautions, and many have remained distant from their network of support even as lockdowns and public health recommendations ease.

“It’s important to remember that not everyone is able or ready to be having increased social contact again, and may have different levels of comfort with in-person interactions,” Stuarts says. “Given this, it is important for friends and family members to have explicit conversations about the protections that will make everyone feel comfortable, whether that is staying outside, wearing masks, or keeping the group small.”

Increasing social contact can also lead to an increase in social anxiety, Yann Poncin, MD, Yale Medicine psychiatrist, tells Verywell. People have been out of practice when it comes to social interactions, which can lead to a greater sense of alienation and isolation.

They may also feel that something is wrong with them for feeling that way, and have the desire to isolate themselves even further to escape such feelings, he adds.

What This Means For You

If you're socially isolated and feeling anxious about reaching out to friends and acquaintances, gradually ease into social contact until you get more comfortable. Building strong and reliable relationships with other people takes time, so don't rush into it or pressure yourself into social situations before you're ready.

How to Overcome Social Isolation

Prolonged social isolation comes with risks, so addressing it is crucial for an individual’s well-being. According to the report, being emotionally isolated can lead to depression.

“Social isolation and the risks will depend on the person,” Poncin says. “In general, one of the main factors in emotional health is having relationships with others. But how isolated you feel also depends on what you want. If you choose isolation and are good at being alone, there will be fewer repercussions. Overall, social isolation can lead to increased feelings of depression, angst, and anxiety.”

Take It Slowly

If reaching out or going out makes you anxious, do it step-by-step to gradually adjust to the sense of discomfort. It’s normal to want to ease slowly into social interactions after having little of it in more than a year, experts say. Take your time building (or rebuilding) relationships.

Get In Touch

“One can start with texting, calling, or reaching out through social media,” Poncin says. “Try to connect with others by a phone call or video call.”

Increasing social interactions within a controlled physical environment may be helpful before going outside and getting together with people. By having meaningful conversations and being vulnerable with other people, you will form stronger relationships.

As you get more comfortable contacting friends and acquaintances, you can make plans and reconnect with them in person when you’re ready.

Ease Into Gatherings

“Look for opportunities to take a walk with one or two friends or meet for coffee at an outdoor coffee shop before planning to attend a full dinner party,” Stuart says. “Find some friends or family members who have similar COVID-19 safety considerations in mind and find activities to do with them.”

To reduce anxiety about the situation, experts advise asking in advance and having explicit conversations about the safety precautions that will be taken. This includes masking, whether the gathering will be held outdoors, or if all attendees are fully vaccinated.

Seek Counseling

“It’s also of course okay to reach out to a mental health professional to help work things through, especially if you are finding it hard to get back into your previous standard activities and interactions,” Stuart says. “They can help give you tools and strategies to re-engage in social interactions in a way that feels right for you.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Quintana A, Lazer D, Perlis R, et al. Social Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID States Project.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.