How Social Isolation Is Killing Us

By Betsy Stalcup, founder and executive director of Healing Center International

“Social isolation is a growing epidemic” writes Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in a recent article in the New York Times; an epidemic that has “dire physical, mental and emotional consequences” including “disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation . . . higher levels of stress hormones” and an increased “risk of heart disease and stroke.”

More people are lonely than ever before. According to Khullar, “Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.”

This is tragic. 

In Genesis 2, Scripture records that God’s reaction to Adam living alone, even in the beauty of an unspoiled Eden, was, "It is not good for the man to be alone.” Although this statement was spoken right before God created Eve and gave her to Adam as his companion, we believe the passage has broader intentions—namely, that God intends for each of us to live lives of deep connection to him and to each other. We are not made to be alone!

The creators of the Life Model say that some wounds only heal in community. At HCI, we agree. That is why we teach classes where people learn about and practice relationship skills. We want everyone to know what healthy community should look like—even when it’s messy—and understand our role in relationships—not to fix each other or set each other straight but to share the joys and sorrows of life with each other with courage and authenticity.

Gaining missing relational skills is a huge step towards this kind of community. I experienced this in my own life when I learned to recognize overwhelm—that emotion when everything is just too much and acting like ourselves becomes a challenge. I know I’m getting overwhelmed when my stomach fills with tension and I am overcome by the urge to close my eyes and tune everything out. I see overwhelm in others in raised eyebrows, broken eye contact and the motion of a head jerking back. Learning that one skill changed my life because I realized that I was overwhelming just about everyone I knew! Including myself! Learning when to stop so we don’t overwhelm others or let ourselves be overwhelmed is the necessary bedrock of trust.

But the NYT article piqued my interest by saying something I had not heard before: according to research “loneliness is not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support, but can be caused in part by unusual sensitivity to social cues. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively, and enter a self-preservation mind-set — worsening the problem.” In short, it is not just our lack of relationship skills that isolates us, but how we see ourselves and others that impacts our ability to form close, meaningful relationships.

Ahh! I thought. This is key! My own healing journey has centered around not just learning skills but also learning experientially how God sees me and sees those around me. Healing of my identity has come primarily through encounters with Jesus, the one who made me and the only one who knows who I truly am. As I turn to him, I receive comfort that helps me to overcome being so sensitive to social cues, seeing rejection where there is none or letting real rejection cause my heart to sink to my toes. I am still very much a work in progress, but I know that God is bringing me bit by bit towards wholeness. Healing, I believe, must include learning relationship skills but it also must come through a gradual healing of how we see ourselves and others—including God. Do we know we are the beloved of God? Can we let him comfort us?

At Healing Center International, we are committed to making encountering Jesus more available in our communities. To that end, we have devoted nearly a year to training our leaders in the Immanuel Approach as well as HeartSync. It takes time and commitment. We aren’t there yet. It is slow going, but I am dreaming of the day when every center of healing—be it in a home, church or house of prayer—will have skilled prayer ministers who can facilitate encounters with God that will restore each person’s identity and enable every one of us to share the joys and sorrows of life in places where we belong, in healthy communities.


“How Social Isolation is Killing Us” by