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Social Distancing and Your Brain

As Covid-19 continues to spread worldwide, those of us who can are practicing social distancing. This means working from home and avoiding large gatherings of people as much as possible. While this is a responsible measure intended to keep more of us healthy, social isolation can negatively impact our mental and physical health.

Your brain on isolation

Since humans are highly social creatures, it makes sense that a large part of our mental health revolves around social inclusion and cohesion, sometimes to the exclusion of other aspects of our health. This is why people join cults or struggle to cut out toxic family members. Intentionally isolating ourselves for the good of our community sounds good on paper but is much harder in practice.

Social isolation, research suggests, can be twice as harmful to both our physical and mental health as obesity. When feeling isolated, we are less mentally resilient in stressful situations (such as a global pandemic) and we feel emotional distress more easily. On a physical level, perceived social isolation has been associated with disrupted sleep patterns, worse cardiovascular function and an impaired immune system. Ironically, these are all terrible conditions to have if you may be battling a virus in the near future.

In extreme cases, such as solitary confinement in prisons, the effects are much more severe and pronounced. After spending years on end with little natural light in a small room, inmates have lost abilities such as recognising faces and navigating walking routes. They are also prone to anxiety attacks, paranoia, abnormal sleep patterns and hallucinations. All these factors make it hard for them to reintegrate into society, further isolating them.

Why does this happen?

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology might have the answer. In a 2018 study, they found that mice that were socially isolated showed changed behaviour such as anxiety, hypersensitivity to threats, and aggressiveness towards unfamiliar mice.

With these symptoms, they also had increased levels of Tac2/NkB neuropeptides. Neuropeptides are short protein chains secreted by specific neurons. They influence the functions of specific neural circuits. Think of neuropeptides like the instruction messages a manager would send to one of their specialised teams. Tac2/NkB neuropeptides were found to be increased in the amygdala and hypothalamus of socially isolated mice – both are areas involved in social behaviour and emotion.

The researchers found that, by blocking the NkB receptors in mice - essentially stopping the message from getting through to its intended team – the symptoms of social isolation went away. Moreover, increasing levels of NkB in non-isolated mice caused them to show the same symptoms of isolation. This tells us that a build up of these neuropeptides in specific areas of the brain are the cause of the symptoms we see from social isolation.

In humans, there is a similar signalling system to the Tac2/NkB one, so it’s likely that something very close to what happens in mice also happens in your brain when you’re feeling socially isolated.

What can I do?

It’s important to be proactive with your mental and physical health during this time to mitigate the worst effects of social isolation. The key here is that, in humans, the problem is perceived social isolation. We’re lucky that, with all the technology at our fingertips, we don’t have to feel lonely, even if we are physically alone.

Make sure to set aside time for social activities. These could be reaching out to friends for a phone call, playing online games or using one of the many apps available to watch movies with your friends remotely. Social media is also a great way to feel connected: if you’re using this time to learn new skills or work on your hobbies, why not share it with your friends?

Exercise is important, as it increases your endorphins and energy while reducing stress. There are lots of free workout apps you can use, or YouTube channels you can check out for at-home work outs.

Getting outside will make you feel less shut-in. Keep your windows open to the elements (weather permitting) while you’re home. If you can, go for a walk in an area with a low density of people.

Most importantly, reach out to people who you know may be more vulnerable to the effects of social isolation such as the elderly or mentally ill. In times like this, community is especially important and well worth the extra effort to maintain.

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