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Isolation: the downside of working alone

Recently, I was approached by the HR Director of an online company. More and more of their telecommuting employees wanted extra EAP for prescriptions for depression and anxiety. He wanted my ideas about why this was happening and if I’d do a seminar to address the problem with them. I was glad he’d called, because many have noticed this trend in telecommuters and solopreneurs for years.

Loneliness is an epidemic in the modern world. The Internet and other new social technologies are huge drivers of this epidemic. allowing us to remain in touch with others without actually connecting with them. There are many benefits to working from home, but the downside is that it affects us profoundly because of the way mammals are wired.

People are social animals. That’s not just because we like to talk. It’s chemically driven.  It was a matter of survival to have people group together, work together for food and shelter, and to hunt and fight off dangers. Our bodies urge us to gather and socialize with what’s called a dopamine/oxytocin-positive interaction, meaning that researchers have found that these hormones work together. Both are pleasure hormones. When we are with others, or petting our cat, it stimulates oxytocin, which affects the dopamine cycle.

Social isolation affects the activation of dopamine and serotonin, which are key to our emotional well-being. When we don’t get enough social interaction, the brain will push us to find someone to interact with.

If we don’t, several negative effects are triggered, first to push us harder, and then to help us survive what the body sees as an endangering situation. Some of these are;

  • ·       Depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing, being easily distracted, lack of motivation, lowered self-confidence,   increased self-criticism,
  • ·       Lowered interest in moving around, more difficulty getting exercise, Lack of movement, exercise.
  • ·       Increased eating disorders and more difficulty and eating properly, eating to compensate, as comfort,
  • ·       Lowered interest in sex, increased sexual dysfunction, increased difficulty in relationships,
  • ·       Drastically increased usage of anti-depressants, anxiety meds, pain meds, sleep meds.
  • ·       Increased TV, web surfing, social media becomes more distracting and are turned to as an imagined connection with people, even though they are TV characters.

 If you see that what you’re experiencing is due to your work situation, you’ll be able to reverse the negative effects, improve your work experience, and not assume that you have mental or emotional problems if they are the result of loneliness and the lack of stimulation from others.

 Here are things you can do:

See if your company can have more Zoom meetings, rather than relying on email.

Get moving: One of main results of social isolation affecting oxytocin levels is lack of motivation to move.

·      Get up every ½ hour. Take deep breaths, move, get a glass of water (also good for you), or just stretch. Research has found that standing up, even for wheelchair users who can, reduces the loss of mobility and muscle strength.

·       Do chair exercises: leg raises, circle your feet, pump your knees, do arm stretches, rotate your shoulders, circle your arms out to the side. Circle your wrists. All these will help stave off carpal tunnel syndrome and thrombosis as well.

·       Move your eyes to other distances every 15 minutes. Look at non-tech items. Move your eyes around, especially at plants or other natural things, out the window, at the view.

·       Turn on music when you take a break. Sing. Dance around your desk. Really, why not? The dog will love it.

·       Plan time to work out. Gym, yoga, dance classes. Take a class with people. Your nervous system responds to the proximity of others, even if you’re not actively interacting with them.

 

Socialize: make more time to meet with friends, partners, family on a regular basis.

Join organizations that socialize, start a group for cooking together, boogie nights, watching NBA games, playing board games, walking, do-it-yourself-pizza, etc.

 Get out & work: plan to work outside your home or solo office. In our local café, there are several groups of regulars who meet daily or weekly to do socialize and work together. Some are planned, some have just evolved. They don’t do similar work at all. It doesn’t seem to matter. Where could you go that you’d be around people even if you don’t plan a get-together?  Your local library, independent café, Starbucks, co-op, Whole Foods. Anywhere that has seating. Remember that it helps your nervous system to be around people. But you could go with the goal of chatting casually with at least one person each time.

 Do something creative. Research has also shown that creative project makes you feel happier, more relaxed, more comfortable in your own skin, more positive. They also use different parts of your brain, so that your linear, right-brain functions get a rest.

 Anticipation is key!! You know that a huge amount of the value of value of planning a vacation in advance is the being able to look forward to it. That keeps you motivated for weeks! The same applies with daily and weekly activities. Plan breaks, classes, movie dates, dancing, singing, dinner plans, working at the café, so that you’ll know that your alone time is limited. Your nervous system and psyche will feel more optimistic when you’re looking forward to a specific event for gathering, as will the

 The next time you feel lonely, think about your nervous system and pleasure hormones. The neurons that feel like anxiety or depression are just trying to help you out; listen to them. Find your social interactions and fight the tendencies to stop moving. Give those nervous system and endocrine system a break. And find that you feel better, have more fun, and feel more in control of your wellbeing.