BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSc Nut Med) investigates how the new regulations and coronavirus guidelines are affecting us, both physically and psychologically, and gives some tips on how to overcome this current social slump…
At this stage of the social isolation game, you may have noticed an obvious divide emerging among your friends. As distancing and self-imposed quarantine wear on and workplaces begin staggering employees in-office days to cope with regulations, the COVID-19 outbreak has left many people feeling alone and detached in ways never thought possible. Some of us respond by hunkering down into cosy domesticity: baking banana bread, reading books or taking long baths alongside a trusty IPA. Others challenge themselves to return from seclusion with inflated muscles and a spray tan in a show of over-exercise meets ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’.
And yet by this stage, more and more of us are beginning to fray: Zooming with friends (or colleagues that you previously wouldn’t have given any attention to) becomes a necessity rather than a luxury; the closure of a favourite coffee shop is cause for tears (and withdrawal tremors); and the walls are closing in Jumanji-style. Regardless of how hipster-hygge you’re feeling at the moment, experts suggest that the negative feelings and experiences associated with prolonged social isolation will come for us all. So, how are the new regulations affecting us, physically and psychologically, and what can we do to beat the social recession? Read on…
While the coronavirus pandemic is an extreme, largely unprecedented moment, the kind of seclusion that’s been causing people to display their tragic dance skills on TikTok over the last few weeks is not as uncommon an experience as you might imagine. The impacts of social isolation on our bodies and minds have been felt and studied in a variety of different groups over the years, from astronauts to incarcerated criminals and Antarctic researchers. The patterns that have emerged from their experiences with radical isolation illuminate ways to understand and improve our own.
And whilst research on the psychological toll of social distancing during epidemics is thankfully limited, a review in the March 14 Lancet provides some clues into how people are affected during outbreaks of infectious disease. Researchers evaluated 24 studies looking at the psychological outcomes of people with were quarantined during outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 flu, and Ebola. The study found that many quarantined individuals experienced both short- and long-term mental health issues, including stress, insomnia, emotional exhaustion and substance abuse. Another study looked at the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak on 549 hospital workers in Beijing.
Those who were quarantined or worked in high-risk settings — almost half the sample group — reported higher levels of alcohol abuse three years later than workers with less-intense exposure to the outbreak. And certain factors increased the risk of psychological problems, such as quarantines lasting longer than 10 days (which was associated mostly with post-traumatic stress), poor information about the rationale for quarantine and lack of access to necessary supplies and telecommunication services.
Thankfully, for Australians, we have had an abundance of information and exceptional telecommunication services to mitigate this type of stress throughout the last few months. Still, though most people living in coronavirus-stricken countries aren’t officially quarantined, research suggests that even less-extreme forms of social distancing, such as staying several feet away from other people or avoiding regular outings will take a toll on our psyche as a whole. Why?
First of all, it is important to remember that self-isolation doesn’t just numb your brain with boredom and have you attacking household cleaning duties with the excitement of a five-year old at the cinema lolly bar. Research shows that people start to become physically lethargic when they don’t have positive external input. Perhaps even more concerning is that the psychological strain of loneliness manifests itself physiologically, too. In fact, some studies show that social isolation over many months has the mortality effect on the human body of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
In many people (particularly the elderly population), social isolation also seems to exacerbate any pre-existing medical conditions, from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s, but this effect can influence us all. In interesting trials, researchers who study stress immunology at the University of Munich have seen similar radical changes in the bodies of people participating in simulations of manned spaceflight missions. Participants, some of whom were only isolated for three months, experienced severe changes to their sleep, their immune, endocrine and neurocognitive systems, and alterations to their metabolism. It seems quite clear — if you change your environment in an extreme way, it will change you.
Physically, studies show that people who are more socially connected show less inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to a downturn in cardiovascular function — blood pressure, heart rate, circulating stress hormones and cellular aging are all affected. However, it is important to note that while a single period of a few weeks in isolation should not lead to inflammation and risk of cardiovascular trouble, periods of social isolation can still have immediate and short-term effects on our physiology. And one of the reasons people can suffer in social isolation is because inherently personal relationships help us cope with stress.
We have evolved to be social creatures. For the history of humanity, people have been in large family structures and group; we have evolved to crave and rely on interaction between others. Interestingly, the human brain has limited bandwidth to solve problems and to regulate emotions, and so our intense sociability serves yet another purpose: to expand that bandwidth. In short, our brains process all manner of information more efficiently in the presence of other people than they do while alone.
Touch is also essential; studies have shown that simply holding hands with a loved one can decrease the anxiety that causes a person to mount a stress response, and even reduce activity in the ‘neurologic pain signature’, resulting in an analgesic effect similar to Panadol. Touch quietens the brain’s emotional activity and is something we just don’t get from that online Houseparty conversation.
Thankfully no matter what your individual situation, there are many things you can do to improve your experience whilst being socially isolated. These include:
● Aim to create as much structure and predictability as you can with the pieces of your life that you have control over. Pursue neglected projects, continue working and stimulating your brain, but also be patient with yourself — both now, and when this strange time ends. Research shows that people who go through a period of self-isolation and social distancing (whether they’ve been on the International Space Station or in quarantine) often experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and struggle when integrating back into their ordinary routine. Regardless of how excited you are for a Parmie at the pub with your mates, this situation may seem strangely anxiety-causing initially as you allow yourself to regroup, regather and rejoin society.
● You are not in this alone, and you shouldn’t leave others that way either. This is a time for strengthening weak connections, so if you haven’t heard from a friend for a while, email or text them to say hi. With any luck, you’ll emerge from social distancing a whole lot closer. While tech isn’t the perfect substitute for a game of touch footy, you will still get some benefit by engaging with others digitally; and the richer the format, the better — a phone call is better than a text, a video conference is better than a phone call and so on.
● Find benefits. Looking for the good in a situation is an important psychological strategy. Globally the COVID-19 crisis has seen companies putting aside their competitive focus and profit-making activities as they transform products and services to overcome shortages in equipment and facilities. We have seen families spending more time together and a renewed discovery of nature as people are truly appreciative of their limited time outdoors. We see people growing their own vegetables, making their own bread and buying fresh local produce instead of frozen supermarket fruit that was shipped via container eight months ago from Europe. We see people relishing human connection and simple things we once all took for granted.
In some ways, necessity is the mother of invention, and from this pandemic we will see exciting innovation and new ways of connecting, exploring and growing as a whole.
We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, when life returns to a new normal, and when our daily lives return to a hurried bustle of energy, over-exhaustion and distinct lack of work-life balance, what will we take with us? Will we prioritise connection? Will we learn to live in the moment? Will we continue to appreciate the value of social effort? It is true that our experience through this pandemic will inevitably change us (both psychologically and physiologically) but do we have the strength and foresight to acknowledge that in some ways, this change may be for the better? Use this time to prepare, think and goal-set, because Post-COVID, the future is ours for the taking. ■