Stay aware of social isolation’s potential deleterious effects

| May 06, 2013

jack-drivingUntitled-1Solitary confinement has been a method of punishment throughout history. Enforced loneliness is often viewed as a method of torture and has been shown to cause psychosis in animal experiments. While I’m not sure how we qualify rat psychosis these days, I do know when my trucker is out by himself for extended periods of time, he can act a little strange.

Inspired by the truckers she meets while traveling the country with her husband, owner-operator George, in addition to checking in on Facebook in Liberal, Kan., Wendy Parker writes the George & Wendy Show blog, appearing several times a week at OverdriveOnline.com/wendy.
Inspired by the truckers she meets while traveling the country with her husband, owner-operator George, Wendy Parker writes the George & Wendy Show blog, appearing several times a week at OverdriveOnline.com/wendy.

According to psychology researcher John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, 20 percent of all people are unhappy because of social isolation at any given moment. Social isolation differs from loneliness. Truckers experience social isolation because they have very little interaction with others in the regular course of their daily jobs. Loneliness is an emotional state felt by people who are dissatisfied with their social connections. Someone who is socially isolated often feels lonely, but lonely people aren’t always socially isolated.

There are many benefits to spending time alone. Freedom is considered to be one of the benefits of solitude. When you’re alone, you don’t have to worry about the constraints of others, and can handle things in your own time frame and scope. If you feel like eating pancakes for dinner and wearing socks on your hands, you do it.

Another proven benefit to time spent in solitude is opportunity for the development of self. When a person spends time in solitude from others, he may experience changes to his self-concept. This can also help a person to form or discover his identity without any outside distractions. Solitude also provides time for contemplation, growth in personal spirituality and self-examination. In these situations, loneliness can be avoided as long as the person in solitude knows that they have meaningful relations with others.

For decades now, researchers have tracked the effects of loneliness and isolation on our physical health. One study at the University of Chicago found that isolation of mice subjects could increase cancerous tumor growth. Another study found that isolation is a risk factor for disease on par with smoking and obesity. Isolation and loneliness can lead to stress, which is a risk factor for many of the same conditions caused by smoking and obesity.

Complete isolation, or sensory deprivation, can cause symptoms that vary from anxiety to sensory hallucinations. Distortions of time and spacial perception have also been reported. However, this is the case when there is no stimulation of the sensory systems at all, not only lack of contact with people. So when you’re traveling the same highway for what seems to be the 10 millionth time, your brain is realizing the minute differences and being stimulated, even if only slightly. “Zoning out” is a side effect of sensory deprivation, and doesn’t necessarily mean a driver is fatigued, though the results can be the same.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of loneliness, social isolation and sensory deprivation. Irritability, depression, and unusual road rage are all signs that you may need to develop a social network, take time to make phone calls and talk to real, live people on a daily basis. My husband George invested in a really good headset — we spend an average of two hours a day talking to each other when he’s out, which is hilarious, because we spend about 15 minutes a day talking to each other when I’m with him in person. Nevertheless, it’s important to him to have the bond of home established firmly when he’s away, and it helps with his overall attitude.

There are many online communities for truckers, and though it’s important to have people you can actually go bowling with, it’s also important to know there are other people in the world experiencing trials and tribulations (and small and large victories) such as yours. Joining an online community not only gives you a sense of connection, it provides source points for information and resources. It also gives you the freedom to turn the relationship on and off as easily as connecting and disconnecting your computer.

You have the choice to be as involved, or uninvolved as you want.

Epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe of University College London writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “There are plenty of people who are socially isolated but who are perfectly happy with that,” Steptoe says. “But even then we should be trying to make sure there’s enough contacts with them so that if something does go wrong … they’re going to be advised and supported.”

Even those who are content to be alone, he says, should have some regular contact with other people who can encourage and check on them.

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