Stay at home. Don’t visit your friends and family. Keep 6 feet away from other people at all times.
They might sound like simple instructions, but for most people, they have been incredibly tough to follow, especially for such a long period of time. Social distancing might be the best way to fight the virus and get us all back to normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that it’s any good for our mental health or our wellbeing.
If you’ve noticed yourself feeling lonely, depressed, anxious, or just a bit more tired and grumpy than usual, than don’t worry – you’re not alone. The isolation of lockdown has been really tough on all of us, and has seen a surge in mental health issues across the country. But why is this, and is there anything you can do to make the loneliness a little easier to bear?
Humans Are Social Animals
The single biggest reason social isolation is so hard for us is that we have evolved to be a social animal. It’s the reason our species was so successful in the beginning, and how we have managed to grow, adapt and evolve further to be the dominant species on the planet. Unlike other animals, which were very solitary, or only operated in small family units, human beings formed larger tribes, finding safety and success in numbers. Instead or worrying about things like food and mating, what determined an individual’s chance of success was how well we performed within the tribe. How well you interacted within the tribe, bonded with other members, and contributed to the communal success.
Over 200,000 years, we have evolved to have this behaviour has been hardcoded into our brains. We are literally programmed to seek out other people. We now have more parts to our brains than our primitive ancestors did, and these new parts seems to exist largely to facilitate that social bonding, communication and closeness to other people. We are designed to be around each other, which makes staying apart that much harder. It’s one of the big reasons solitary confinement is seen as a form of torture by many psychologists.
How Social Isolation Impacts Your Brain
We’ve now had some form of social distancing in place for almost a year, which is a very, very long time to go without social interaction. And over time, this can have a pretty big impact on your brain. In the short term, isolation increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. This one hormone regulates some fundamental metabolic pathways in the body, from sugar levels and blood pressure to memory formation. This is one of the reasons you might feel a bit low after just a short time in isolation – your blood sugar regulation has dropped, which often leads to ‘stress eating’.
After only 2 weeks of isolation, the neuropeptide levels in your brain start to shift and cause an increase in aggressiveness. Growth factors in the brain decrease, and this means the neurones in the sensory and motor areas of the cortex shrink by up to 20%. This puts you at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression, struggling with new memory formation and cognitive abilities, as well as chronic stress and a range of other serious psychiatric disorders. Chronic social isolation can cause some very deep changes in the brain, and cause serious disruption of the balance of your entire nervous system, which puts you at higher risk of premature death from things like heart disease and strokes, and can cause increased blood pressure and general inflammation in the body.
How To Beat It
That all sounds very bad, but the good news is there are some things you can do to reduce the impact of social isolation, while still following the social distancing guidelines. These include:
Keep a Schedule: A schedule can help you keep a feeling of ‘normal’ in your day, and make you feel like you’re being pro-active about the situation.
Stay Active: Exercise is not only good for your body, but it releases endorphins and other hormones that make you feel happy and give you a boost. Whether it’s gentle yoga, intense running or even a walk around the block, just 10 minutes of exercise a day can dramatically improve your mood.
Keep in Touch: We may not be able to meet in person, but you can still interact with the people in your life and keep the loneliness at bay. You could try zoom calls, sending letters, chatting on instant messengers or even a phone call – all of these can help you feel less lonely and more connected with other people.
Do Something Meaningful: Isolation can lead to a loss of sense of meaning. If you’re not just feeling bored, but like you’re losing your sense of self, then doing something that will create meaning in your life will help. You could sign up for an online course and do a bit of work each day, create a family tree, or volunteer with an organisation.
And finally, seek help. If you’re struggling with the effects of isolation and feel like your mental health is suffering, there are resources out there to help you. Whether you want a tool to support you in managing your mental health, or you need professional help, there is always someone there for you. At The Holistic Healthcare Group, we’ve developed an app called MELP to go alongside our mental health support services, so you can try out some techniques and therapies and see what works for you, while giving you access to a network of professional support if you need it.
So if you need some help, support, or just someone to talk to, our (virtual) doors are always open. All you have to do is click here to reach us.