How "Social Distancing" Affects Your Brain

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Many of us have been either ordered or highly encouraged to practice "social distancing" during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing for many means self-isolating in your home, avoiding gatherings of six or more people and keeping your distance from anyone who doesn't live in your household.

This means for many, there no more sleepovers with your friends, no more going out to eat at restaurants, no pick-up basketball games at the park ... the list goes on. Not only that, but you may be separated from friends, family and significant others for weeks (and maybe months).

You might already be feeling the effects of this isolation. Humans are social animals that thrive on interaction and forming social groups.

So what happens to our brains when we're isolated?

How Isolation Affects the Brain

Humans as animals evolved to form social groups and families that we depend on for survival. These social connections benefit us in terms of the basics of survival (being taken care of when sick, compiling resources, etc.) but also because of the positive social interactions that we get from it (love, happiness, sex, feeling safe).

Think about the worst punishment that you can get in prison: solitary confinement.

Studies of prisoners who endured long bouts of solitary confinement show that a lot changed in their brains. Some people were unable to recognize faces as easily. Scientists have also found a strong correlation between social isolation and depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mood disorders.

Other studies in mice found that the brain can lose 20% of its neurons after social isolation, which can lead to memory loss, loss of function, mental disorders and more.

There has also been more recent analysis of people who were isolated as a result of a disease outbreak. One study found that many of those who were socially isolated developed anxiety, depression and PTSD during and following the disease outbreak.

Physical Effects of Isolation

While many might not be surprised to find out that social and physical isolation in your home could lead to depression and other negative mental effects, these mental effects also lead to physical ones.

The feelings of anxiety and depression that can be triggered by social distancing and social isolation can lead to the following physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue/lethargy
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Stomach upset & digestive issues
  • Insomnia (or sleeping more often than usual)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overeating

Isolation and loneliness can also trigger stress responses alongside feelings of depression and anxiety. Scientists have observed that this can decrease the strength of your immune system (not something you want happening during a pandemic), exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions, change your appetite and literally rewire your neurocognitive system to your new reality.

Alexander Chouker, a professional physician researcher studying stress immunology, said that "being confined and isolated affects the human physiology as a whole.”

This isn't just in the short term, either. These effects can and do impact humans in the long term, not just during the time of isolation. In fact, one study found that social isolation has the same mortality rate as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

What You Can Do About It

All of that sounds pretty bad, right?

The good news is we have tools, technology and knowledge that can help us maintain connections and improve our mental and physical health, even during this pandemic that's keeping us isolated.

Stay Active & Get Outside

Staying active is one of the best things you can do for your brain (and body) in isolation. Social distancing and isolating without staying active can actually cause your muscles to atrophy. Not only that, but not staying active can exacerbate the mental effects of isolation leading to sadness, depression and stress.

Keep active with short walks, YouTube workouts, family yoga or any of the free exercise services offered by big name companies (find a nice list of options here). Exercise releases feel good chemicals in the body, which can help combat depression and sadness, keeping you happy and healthy during this time.

If you're working during, remember to allow yourself breaks. Get up, stretch or take a walk outside (safely and following social distancing rules). Studies show that these breaks help you be more productive and can improve your mental health.

Stay Connected

In the past, social distancing would've truly meant no contact with your friends, family members or co-workers. However, we're lucky to live in a time when seeing your friends is just a FaceTime call away.

Take the time to call your friends and family, organize movie parties to watch a film together over the phone, play board games with the people you live with, break out some online video games or whatever else you love to do! You can find a way to stay connected even when you're physically apart.

Keep Your Brain Working

Boredom is one of the main complaints of many during isolation. Just like isolation itself, boredom comes with its own slew of negative mental and physical effects. It's been linked to sadness, depression, drug abuse, stress and more.

To avoid this, keep your brain working! It's tempting to veg out in front of the TV, but try to limit that. Take this time to work on a hobby, try out meditation, look up an online class, learn about something you're interested in, work on a puzzle ... anything to keep your brain working and learning!

If you need somewhere to get started, check out our "projects" section for hundreds of science project ideas to try out. We also have articles on documentaries to watch, tips for doing online classes and much more to keep you and your brain busy during this time.

References

About the Author

Elliot Walsh holds a B.S in Cell and Developmental Biology and a B.A in English Literature from the University of Rochester. He's worked in multiple academic research labs, at a pharmaceutical company, as a TA for chemistry, and as a tutor in STEM subjects. He's currently working full-time as a content writer and editor.