Humans are social beings. Quality connections enable us to survive and thrive. We rely on one another for happiness and safety. Yet suffering from a chronic illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease, can make it difficult to access social networks. To encourage health and healing, it’s crucial to develop strategies to cope with social isolation.
What is Social Isolation?
Social isolation is the lack of social contact. It’s the objective physical separation from people, such as living alone. It involves being situationally cut off from social networks because of medical conditions, lack of mobility, or unemployment for example.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective experience. You can feel lonely even while surrounded by people. For instance, you can be at a concert surrounded by many people, but still feel disconnected and alone .
Losing a sense of connection and community can negatively impact health. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to a a higher risk for conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, decreased immune system, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and premature death . Loneliness may actually increase inflammation, making inflammatory bowel disease symptoms worse (IBD).
Dr Cole, director of Social Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA, explains that when someone is chronically lonely, they may feel threatened and mistrustful of others. As a result this can activate a biological defense mechanism.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases… the biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.” 
Researchers found that people who are socially isolated or lonely are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, when compared to people with strong personal networks. Social isolation (not loneliness) also appeared to increase the risk of death in people with a history of heart disease.
Isolation was associated with:
-43% higher risk of first-time heart attack
-39% higher risk of first-time stroke
Loneliness was associated with:
-49% higher risk of first-time heart attack
-36% higher risk of first-time stroke 
Lack of or limited social interactions may not directly cause heart problems, but can seriously affect the ability to recover from them.
How to Cope with Social Isolation
It’s normal to want to withdraw from social activities when not feeling well. In the short term it can be helpful since it promotes rest and recovery. However, when a sickness is chronic, staying at home and away from people isn’t a realistic strategy.
From aches and pains to frequent bathroom trips to extreme fatigue, the nature of IBD related symptoms make it very difficult to show up for social activities.
When it comes to coping with IBD related social isolation, the most important thing to know is yourself.
Respect Your Limit
Knowing limits and communicating them will allow for healthy relationships. Perhaps socializing sounds good but drinking doesn’t. Or maybe heading out for an hour is perfect but more will interfere with a well established sleep routine.
Be realistic and recognize when it’s helpful to push outside of a comfort zone and when it’s better to stay home and rest. On the other hand, don’t let a little social anxiety deter from a worthwhile opportunity to be with good people and make strong connections.
Get Creative About Connecting
Connecting can take a bit of thinking outside the box. Start by brainstorming favorite hobbies, activities, movies, music, etc. Search for a meet-up or group based on the those enjoyable things, surrounding yourself with like minded people. Volunteering is also an easy way to meet new people, not to mention it also helps give back to the community.
It’s important to find a good support system, both when it comes to friends and medical professionals. A trusted team provides strength and stability. Groups provide a chance to share experiences with people who relate and understand.
Nori Health is a digital coach who is there to support you in discovering and changing the lifestyle factors that impact your well being. She’s there for you 24/7 to listen to what you’re going through and provide tips to help you improve your life. She can help you find the foundation you need.
This article has been written by Lisa Booth, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and co-founder of Nori Health. Content is based on her professional knowledge, and our collection of 100+ scientific research study papers.