Some Americans have gone as long as three months without having direct, face-to-face contact with another person due to the coronavirus pandemic, USA Today reports. The psychological toll brought by that kind of isolation is one of the many side-effects of the coronavirus pandemic that the medical community is looking at.
The phrase "social distancing" has been part of the English-language lexicon for a few months now, as the practice is one of the best tools at our disposal for slowing the spread of the pandemic. And while staying 6 feet apart, avoiding gathering in large groups (such as at church or in a movie theater), and similar measures have worked for most Americans, for others, it simply isn't enough.
Those Americans, who are older or who have compromised immune systems, for example, have taken the step of completely isolating themselves from all other human contact.
Ema Martinez of Lubbock, Texas is one such American. Thanks to her chronic leukemia, she hasn't touched another human in three months, lest she risk contracting the coronavirus and forcing her compromised immune system to have to contend with the deadly pathogen.
One thing that's been particularly hard on her is missing out on her valued time with her 3-year-old grandson. Before the pandemic, she would babysit him and hold overnight visits with him. Now, she's gone months without his touch.
"I'd sit for 15 minutes and cry because I missed my grandson, and I was convinced I was never going to see him again," she said.
Edward Watson, of Toccoa, Georgia, liked being alone before the pandemic, having moved to a rural Appalachian community for some peace and quiet. He has no TV and shut down all of his social media accounts years ago. However, since the coronavirus pandemic hit, his self-imposed isolation has gotten even more extreme than he expected. He can't go to the gym, can't go to City Hall to pay his utility bills, and can't even shop for groceries as most of the storefronts in his town are closed.
"It has a dystopian feel about it," he said.
Psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad says that human beings evolved to thrive in groups, such as families, communities, or peer groups, and that we aren't naturally solitary creatures.
"We are not meant to be alone," she said.
The effects of extended isolation extend beyond just depression and anxiety, however. Studies have shown that extended periods of isolation can lead to cognitive decline, speed up dementia, increase blood pressure, weaken immune functionality and increase inflammation, she says.
Some have taken on creative ways of battling loneliness. Some have thrown themselves into nature, or learning new skills, or fixing up their homes.
But for Martinez, at some point not long ago she, decided enough was enough. She talked things over with her daughter and, soon enough, her grandson was at her home to spend the weekend with her.
"What am I saving myself for? I want to be able to leave him some memories of me, and I don't want those memories to be me hiding in my house," she said.