With the number of COVID-19 vaccinations going up and quarantine restrictions being lifted throughout the United States, people are finally beginning to emerge from their homes to go to restaurants and movie theaters again for the first time in over a year. However, you might still be feeling reluctant to re-enter the world, even if you are vaccinated — and some of that may not just be your uncertainty — but just how your own brain reacts.
While social distancing was crucial for reducing the spread of COVID-19 across the globe — averting well over an estimated 500 million cases, the 15 months people spent in isolation took a toll of its own on our mental well-being, grounds for a case study all on its own.
According to a national survey conducted by Harvard University, a staggering 36% of adults across the U.S. — a figure that included 61% of young adults — described feelings of “serious loneliness” at the peak of the pandemic, a time when feelings likely heightened due to the oncoming winter holidays. From these metrics, you might think people would be anxious to socialize once again, but there’s something more here.
Imagine yourself walking into a packed bar at happy hour with a bunch of strangers and having to strike up a conversation with just a few of them — it’s probably not helping that the music is blasting and making it hard to hear, but this is roughly what the feeling is like now that the pandemic is coming to a close. Almost half of all Americans reported feeling anxious about returning to their day-to-day in-person lives, whether or not they were vaccinated.
So how is it that people are on one hand feeling lonely but are so cautious when it comes to going out again in public?
Our brains are surprisingly resilient to changing circumstances. It’s still too early to pattern exactly what happened to all our brains over the course of the last year, but neuroscientists do have some insight as to how both isolation and resocialization impact your brain.
Socializing To Maintain Homeostasis
By nature, humans are meant to be social creatures — it’s the way we evolved into who we are today, even though you might not realize the connection when choosing between going to dinner with friends and binge watching your favorite TV show on the sofa.
Demonstrated in just about every group of the animal kingdom is the ability to form and maintain social networks — which are essential for survival when it comes to seeking out and maintaining food and staking out new territory, while also offering prospects for mating and defense against predators.
But in order for there to be a social network, there must be “social homeostasis” — the ideal balance of social connections. Smaller social networks aren’t able to deliver those benefits, while an overly vast network can make competition over the same resources more difficult for its adherents. Therefore, our individual brains need to adjust accordingly to these conditions and make the right adjustments.
Social homeostasis requires the participation of numerous brain regions, with what is known as the mesocorticolimbic circuit — a “reward system” at its crux. This is the wiring that encourages you to seek out sugar when craving sweets, or whether to respond to that last swipe on Tinder.
Deprive yourself of food and your food cravings will begin to increase, with even foods that aren’t your favorites suddenly becoming all the more appetizing — and a similar mechanism happens if you deprive yourself of human contact, with brain patterns producing social cravings. So what happens if we starve ourselves socially?
Socializing To Live
One all too common and pronounced effect of social isolation is — inevitably — heightened anxiety and stress.
Multiple studies have shown that extracting animals from their cage mates boosts both anxiety-like behaviors and the production of cortisol, the brain’s primary stress hormone. Studies on humans support this even further, demonstrating that individuals who live in small social circles exhibit higher cortisol levels and a host of anxiety-related symptoms like the socially deprived lab creatures.
Looked at from an evolutionary perspective, this effect begins to make sense. When animals lose the protection of the herd, they must then become hypervigilant to both hunt and stay on guard for predators, two tasks to balance at all times. It’s not something that only takes place in the wild either — with self-described loners being more mindful of social threats such as rejection or exclusion from the group.
Another important region for social homeostasis is the hippocampus — your brain’s learning and memory center. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors — such as selflessness and cooperation — and recognize friends from foes. But your brain stores tremendous amounts of information and must remove unimportant connections. So, like most of your high school Spanish — if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Several other studies of animal behavior indicate that sometimes even temporary episodes of isolation in adulthood can take a toll on one’s social memory — the ability to recall familiar faces in a crowded setting, or even facets of our working memory, like remembering the ingredients of a favorite recipe during cooking.
Isolated humans can sometimes be just as forgetful. Explorers residing in the Antarctic showed a decrease in their brain’s hippocampus after just a 14-month sojourn from civilization. By the same token, adults who maintain just a small social circle are more prone than their peers to suffer from memory loss and cognitive decline as they age.
So we may have progressed beyond long treks in the wilderness, but the same social homeostasis that saw us through those long migrations is still crucial to our own preservation. As malleable as your brain is with isolation, it could be just as true when it comes to resocialization.
Reprogramming Your Social Life
There have only been a small number of studies dedicated to anxiety and stress associated with long periods of isolation, and even a smaller degree of research that looks into whether these feelings can be reversed, but it does indicate positive news.
In one particular study, marmosets who had been quarantined for an extended period exhibited higher than normal levels of stress and increased cortisol levels when they were reintegrated in social groups, but in a short time, they readjusted to normal levels of social interaction. In fact, after the period of isolation, they consistently spent more time grooming their newly found friends.
Social memory and cognitive function are also highly adaptable brain functions. Studies using mice and rats have reported that although they have trouble processing their friends’ faces after a short period of isolation, they can quickly regain their memories after they readjust to a normal, social life.
There could even be hope for the people now emerging from lockdown and social distancing guidelines. A study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology using data collected in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that residents showed some symptoms of cognitive decline when restrictions were at their most stringent but were able to readjust quickly after restrictions were loosened again.
Unfortunately, the body of literature is still meager. Although primates and rodents often make for useful test subjects, it is also presenting a worst-case scenario that may not readily apply to humans, since experimental measures are more extreme than many of the rules of lockdown. Unlike the mice, people often had their own virtual game nights or holiday Zoom parties — which allowed for some degree of social interaction. The good news is while it may take awhile, your brain can usually take care of resetting from social distancing on its own.
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