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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.

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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:

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.

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:

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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:

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.

Resources

Brooks, B.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., & Greenburg, N. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Rapid Review, 395(10227).

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

Chopik W. J. (2016). The Benefits of Social Technology Use Among Older Adults Are Mediated by Reduced Loneliness. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking19(9), 551–556. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0151

Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M. J., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain structure links loneliness to social perception. Current biology : CB22(20), 1975–1979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045

Matthews GA, Tye KM. (2019). Neural mechanisms of social homeostasis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. Dec;1457(1):5-25. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14016