At this point in our social distancing journey, you've probably noticed that there are two very distinct groups of people present. First are the inherent homebodies. The people who, even in normal life, would rather stay in than go out on a Friday night. They're the ones filling your Instagram feed with banana bread, candlelit baths and posting each novel they finish on Twitter with a full review. Sure, being told to stay home until further notice isn't the greatest thing in the world, but for all intents and purposes, they're OK with it.
The second are the flamboyant extroverts. The people who, in normal life, are rarely ever at home. They're the ones who are now posting a new Zoom hangout on their Instagram story every single day and have texted you basically nonstop since quarantine started "just to check in." They thrive on social connection, and they're high-key going crazy without it. Word to the wise: Check on these friends as much as you can.
No matter if you've fully embraced your inner hygge during COVID-19 or you've joined online friend circles to chat with strangers just to feel something, we're all dealing with this in a different way. Living through a worldwide terror like this isn't a walk in the park, and
all of us most of us are just doing the best we can.
Now, here comes the interesting part. Many of us have thought long and hard about how it kinda sucks that we aren't allowed to go anywhere or do anything right now. But have you thought about what kind of influence our current social state could be having internally? Like, on our brains? Obviously, not a ton of research has been done on it since this has literally never happened before. But overall, isolation can do some wackadoo stuff to our noggins.
“Oftentimes, if you have a very well-defined period of time in which you’re isolated, people do pretty well up until the halfway point,” Lawrence Palinkas, a researcher in psychosocial adaptation to extreme environments at the University of Southern California, told Wired. “Then they experience a let-down. But when you’re in a situation like we are now, when you’re not certain how long you’ll be asked to maintain social distance, that produces anxiety as well.”
Think about it. If you were an astronaut going to Mars, even if you were going to be in the spaceship for years, in theory, there would be some sort of end date to your journey. The same goes for people incarcerated. Most of them have a specific sentence they're carrying out, and if they don't, that means they know they'll be in prison for life and can adjust their brains as such. We're in total purgatory right now, and our brains and bodies don't know how to respond to that.
One study that was originally done for the purpose of space travel found that after just three months, the bodies of those being studied had undergone radical changes to their sleep, changes to their immune, endocrine and neurocognitive systems and alterations to their metabolisms.
“The pure fact of being confined affects the body. If you change your environment in a quite extreme way, it is changing you," said Alexander Chouker, a physician researcher who studies stress immunology at the University of Munich. “Being confined and isolated affects the human physiology as a whole."
Another study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology even found that loneliness can have the same effect on the body as hunger. In a nutshell, scientists tested one group of people who had been socially isolated for 10 hours. With another group, food was withheld for the same amount of time. When the study was finished, the brain had similar neural patterns for both groups.
“This tells us that there seems to be an underlying shared neural signature between the two states,” Livia Tomova, one of the scientists running the study, told Scientific America. “Social contact is a very basic need.”
That was a lot of long, science-y talk to say exactly what I started out by saying: We are in uncharted territory right now. Even scientists have only tested these effects in theory, not in actuality.
What I will say is that when health experts, your mom or whomever you take advice from tells you to make sure you're taking breaks, getting fresh air and connecting with friends and loved ones when you can, listen to them. I am the first one to jump at the chance to stay in my shell and cut myself off from the rest of the world, but with no end in sight, that just can't be an option right now, lest we lose sense of who we really are in the process. This will change us. And we probably can't avoid that. But it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.