Social Distancing: How it impacts the brain
As proposed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, humans are social creatures. We require human contact to thrive. But with relationships and intimacy comes situations that may require social distancing. That is, avoiding contact with others to prevent contagious disease. Does social distancing have negative effects? Let’s read how prolonged social distancing triggers a series of brain changes that impact the psyche, cognitive development, and physical function.
What is Social Distancing?
Social distancing describes the measures taken to prevent the spread of disease by limiting physical contact between people. By maintaining a physical distance from others, the goal of social distancing is to decrease a healthy individual’s exposure to those who are carrying the contagious disease because the infection can be transmitted in the following ways:
- Droplet contact—airborne, coughing or sneezing
- Direct physical contact—touching, sexual contact
- Indirect physical contact—touching a contaminated surface such as doorknobs, rails, etc.
- Ingestion—contaminated food or water supply
The public health practice includes remaining home as much as possible. This means no unnecessary travel, not frequenting stores, dining in restaurants, visiting community facilities (i.e. libraries, gymnasiums, etc.), and school and non-essential businesses are transitioned remotely or may be canceled entirely. These extremes are not implemented for the common cold. However, for more serious illnesses that are considered a pandemic—an illness spreading rapidly across a large region—social distancing is life-saving.
Examples of Social Distancing Measures
Practicing successful social distancing demands the effort from government officials, business owners, and the general population. According to the CDC, social distancing requires “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”
Below are the additional steps taken at the first sign of a pandemic. Each of these social isolation measures creates the segregation of human contact, which presents the opportunity for extensive effects on the brain.
- School closure—Colleges and grade school education is transferred to web-based online courses or homeschooling rather than attending large lectures.
- Work closure—This includes reduction of work hours and/or closing all non-essential businesses. Businesses make accommodations (i.e. pick-up only dining).
- Closing recreational facilities—All non-essential facilities like malls, libraries, community pools, youth clubs, sports teams, gymnasiums, childcare centers, etc.
- No unnecessary travel—Public transportation (i.e. buses, airplanes, subways) are limited.
- Restriction of goods—Few resources are imported or exported to avoid infected areas.
- Cancellation of mass gatherings—Sporting events, films, concerts is refunded.
- Canceling non-urgent medical appointments—This reduces the exposure of non-infected individuals to the population seeking medical care for the contagious disease.
Brain Changes From Social Distancing
Anyone is bound to have fluctuations in happiness and mood when staying home weeks to months at a time with little human contact. Imaging studies of the brain reflect variances in gray matter in those who are experiencing significantly loneliness (Kanai et al., 2012). Multiple brain regions are involved. Further studies by the California Institute of Technology using mice show that the activation of tachykinin regulated by the hypothalamus and amygdala, a protein released by the brain’s nerve cells, triggers a stress reaction in the body in response to social isolation exceeding 24-hours. As the body releases stress hormones and neurotransmitters, both of which are known to regulate mood, behavioral changes can be expected.
Can Social Distancing Effect Cognitive Development?
These alterations in brain chemicals are not restricted to mice. Humans are susceptible too. Prolonged social distancing does have an effect on cognitive development. Cognitive development is the growth and maturation process of thinking. As children age, skills like problem solving, perception, attention, language, logic, reasoning, memory, social development, and other aspects of cognition evolve. Acquiring these skills over time is cognitive development.
Social distancing can interfere with the natural development of cognition. Children especially need social interaction to learn. Studies show that lonely individuals have a decreased understanding of nonverbal communication along with a deficit in social skills. CogniFit has offered 300 million licenses to train your child’s brain. This may offer a solution to keep their cognitive skills in shipshape. Visit #stayathome to learn more.
Social Distancing: Social Equilibrium
Like food, water, and shelter, socialization is a human need. The brain and body undergo the process of social homeostasis to fulfill socialization. Scholars report three phases of social homeostasis occurring within numerous brain regions: (1) a detector that recognizes changes in socialization, (2) a control center to establish a “set point”—the amount of socialization required to meet needs—and how far off a change in a social situation is from that point, and (3) an effector which governs the return to the set social point.
Mental Health Effects of Social Distancing
Social distancing interferes with the equilibrium of social homeostasis leading to mental health effects. Firstly, social distancing presents stress factors. Examples of stressors from social distancing include fear of infection, boredom, financial hardship, and limited supplies (i.e. food, water, medical care). Increased stress is linked to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Mental Health Disorders
Psychiatrists agree that a range of mental health problems stems from social distancing. Those practicing social distancing are generally more anxious and hypervigilant displaying exaggerated behaviors because prolonged isolation induces chemical changes within the brain from the release of tachykinin previously discussed in the mice studies at the California Institute of Technology. Changes in mood, particularly anger and aggression, but also emotional exhaustion and insomnia, result.
The main mental health disorders caused by social distancing include:
- Acute stress disorder—Acute stress disorder is crippling anxiety and dissociation developing within one month of a traumatic event. Other symptoms are flashbacks, hallucinations, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—Similar to acute stress disorder, PTSD is the symptoms of trauma that can occur months or years after the traumatic experience.
- Anxiety—Anxiety is extreme worry disproportionate to the situation. Those who experience anxiety have symptoms like increased heart rate, nervousness, trembling, weakness, difficulty concentrating, hyperventilation, panic, excessive sweating, and more.
- Depression—Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent, unexplained sadness, apathy, and a loss of interest in regular activities that lasts three or more months.
- Substance abuse—Substance abuse is the unhealthy dependence on drugs or other substances in harmful amounts. In the case of prolonged social distancing, substance abuse can develop from an attempt to cope with the anxiety and depression or by simply picking up a new habit for recreation to cope with the boredom of isolation.
The Effects of Social Distancing Based on Personality
The idea of social distancing may not sound half bad to those with specific personality characteristics. To introverts, people who rely on their own thoughts and feelings, social distancing is a reprieve from the socialization they find mentally draining. They may even feel less stressed than before. Regardless, a decreased want of socialization does not spare them from the negative effects of social distancing. Their fondness for alone time can prevent them from connecting with people virtually while continuing to maintain distancing measures. They are most prone to alterations in mood from social distancing.
Extraverts are outgoing. They thrive on conversation, are energetic, and thoroughly enjoy social interaction. Social distancing is a more difficult concept to follow for these individuals. Anxiety levels increase when they cannot use socialization to process their emotions. During social distancing, it’s imperative for extroverts to socialize and partake in activities through technology.
Who is Most Susceptible to the Negatives of Social Distancing?
A specific subset of people is more susceptible to the negative mental, emotional, and physical impact of social distancing. They are:
- Healthcare workers like doctors, nurses, and hospital staff—They put themselves at greater risk by treating infected individuals.
- Lower-income families—Those with lower socioeconomic status have increased stress from the financial and economical burdens resulting from social distancing, as work hours decrease or they fear the risk of being laid off.
- Public workers—Uber drivers, delivery services, grocery store staff: essential businesses continue to operate during social distancing to maintain the functioning of the economy and as a way to meet the basic needs of society. These workers are exposing themselves to the illness.
- The elderly—Elderly individuals are already isolated due to poor health. Many also have a limited support system because family and friends have passed away.
- Mental illness patients—Someone with a previously existing mental disorder is prone to the combined effects of social isolation with their illness. For example, the sadness and decreased interest in regular activities commonly exhibited in depression are exacerbated by the situation.
Technology and Social Distancing
In today’s modern times, socializing is possible while still abiding by social distancing protocols. Technology keeps family and friends connected despite not being in close proximity. Obvious options such as Skype, Facetime, and Zoom which allow video chatting comparable to face-to-face conversation. Easily accessible social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are great for long-distance communication. Of course, there are also traditional phone calls and text messages for verbal and electronically written chats.
However, technology is an integral component of social distancing in other ways. When isolated from society, the media accessed through technology (i.e. mobile phones, computers, and television) informs the social distancing population of the ongoings of the world. They can access updates on news stories. Additionally, computers support the economy. Businesses that would otherwise be shut down are able to operate remotely.
If social distancing, contact with others through technology provides the socialization and fun necessary to improve mood, reduce anxiety, enhance psychological functioning, and lead to better physical health.
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California Institute of Technology. (2018, May 17). How social isolation transforms the brain: A particular neural chemical is overproduced during long-term social isolation, causing increased aggression and fear. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 29, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180517113856.htm
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Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M. J., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain structure links loneliness to social perception. Current biology : CB, 22(20), 1975–1979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045
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Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.