The Psychology of Isolation

The Psychology of Isolation

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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced extroverts and introverts alike into their homes since the beginning of 2020, and with the winter months limiting outside activities, the loneliness many people are facing can seem endless. For younger individuals, the loss of quality time with their friends or fun nights out are restrictions that have impacted their overall wellbeing. Social isolation is linked to poor sleep quality, impaired function, cognitive decline and lower immunity according to the American Psychological Association. So what tools can be utilized to minimize these effects?

A part of what contributes to feelings of loneliness is a lack of human skin contact and (non-romantic) physical touch. The skin is the largest organ of the body and is made up of billions of cells. When it comes into contact with something, it sends neurochemical cues to the somatosensory cortex of the brain. Here, the brain processes the chemical cues to make sense of them and determine their nature and meaning. Over time this primal process, once used for perceiving danger, has evolved into a type of language capable of reducing stress and strengthening human social bonds. In response to a hug or a pat on the back, the brain releases oxytocin, also known as the ‘bonding hormone’. This chemical release triggers a reaction of feel-good hormones like serotonin (which is responsible for regulating mood, body temperature and appetite) and dopamine (which is in charge of mood and muscle regulation, as well as the brain’s ‘reward system’). When these hormone levels change suddenly – such as when you‘ve not been able to see, let alone embrace, anyone in months – you may be more apt to experience feeling low or sad.

For a lot of people the pandemic has also caused feelings related to anxiety. In the UK, MentalHealth.org found that over half of the adult population has felt anxious or worried just in December of 2020. A study led by the University of Nottingham and King’s College London found that levels of stress, anxiety, and depression have been significantly heightened during social restriction, with 57 percent of adults in the study reporting symptoms of anxiety. Women and young people were the most affected. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, in June 2020 U.S. adults reported a significant increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, with these symptoms, again, being disproportionately worse among minority groups, younger adults and essential workers. While stress and anxiety are related, they are caused by different things. Stress is influenced by external factors, such as an argument or event, whilst feeling anxious is an internal response caused by stress. When someone feels anxious, regions of the brain begin to go into fight-or-flight mode. The amygdala, which is part of the brain’s limbic system, is responsible for giving emotions meaning and attaching associations and responses to them. The amygdala communicates with the hypothalamus, whose job is to release hormones and regulate body temperature. When the amygdala detects stress, the hypothalamus releases stress hormones.

Whilst the world is still fighting this virus, hugs and other forms of friendly physical contact with those outside of your home are highly discouraged. Although the future concerning the pandemic is looking up, it is still unsafe to think that life is as it was before Covid-19. Physical exercise is one alternative way to increase your hormone levels and encourage endorphin production in these difficult times. But what other tools are available?

Utilize Technology

At this point of the work-from-home lockdown, you may be rather tired of Zoom and other video-call applications. However, mental health experts say it is important to stay connected with each other during this time. One study, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, found that virtual face-to-face technology is able to stimulate feelings of social presence and can even help in the bonding of social relationships. Why not coordinate a virtual pub event with your friends (with pints in hand), or take a virtual tour of a museum whilst ‘facetiming’ some friends? The National History Museum has several current exhibits online and the British Museum is also offering online exhibitions. Finding a safe way to connect with friends and loved ones by utilizing technology can help increase some of these feel-good hormones. Additionally, virtually hanging out with friends, even if it is over a quick lunch, often leads to laughter

Laughter

Genuine laughter is one of the body’s many built-in stress-relieving mechanisms. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lighthearted chuckle over a newspaper cartoon or if you are laughing so hard tears are forming; the effect is the same. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing has several short- and long-term benefits. In the moments of laughter, organs are stimulated by oxygen-rich air, endorphins are released by the brain, and tension is soothed as muscles relax. Over long periods of time, laughter has been shown to improve your immune system, relieve pain, and improve overall mood.

If you have Netflix, try scanning the “Netflix is a Joke” section, and start a virtual watch party using the Teleparty extension (formally known as Netflix Party). Instagram Live also features comedians giving virtual shows; @comedyquarantine hosts an Instagram Live show every Wednesday to Friday at 7 Pacific Standard time. Thelaughbutton.com has thousands of comedy videos available, whilst comedy.co.uk and thecomicscomic.com have a list of other resources. Alternatively, Badsalva.com is the largest open mic website out there and allows you to search by location. The key is to find the type of humor that makes you laugh and to join that community.

As a young adult who has navigated my last year of university through this pandemic entirely from my computer screen, I can assure you these tools have made me and my friends’ lives slightly more bearable. One feeling that keeps coming up in conversations, other than how depressed and mentally exhausted we all are, is FOMO (The Fear Of Missing Out). For us, the pandemic has stolen key moments in our coming-of-age story that we may never get back: university graduations, high-school proms, and weddings were cancelled. Several of my friends’ monumental 21st birthdays (as well as my own) took place during complete lockdown. In the U.S., this milestone is often spent drinking your way through pubs, making memories you’ll never fully remember or that you wish you could forget. Instead, in order to do our part in fighting this virus, we celebrated on Facetime. Was it entirely the same? No, but the laughter, conversation, and smiles made up for the lack of hugs, and I think we all felt ­– even just momentarily – like things weren’t all that bad.

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