And the Pandemic Beat Goes On

Five targeted ways to deal with the drudgery of social entrapment.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

Source: gremlin/iStockphoto

For many, the consequences of the lockdown are a double-edged sword. No more traffic jams, frenetic air travel, or caring about what you wear—there are quite a few perks. Yet, we are wired to be social, and there is a drudgery to not socializing that takes a toll on our biology. Since different people have different social outlets, it's not the same for everyone.

In 1972, French adventurer and scientist Michel Siffre isolated himself in a cave in what became one of the most famous isolation experiments in history. He documented the effects of this isolation on his mind over those 205 days and noticed that he could “barely string thoughts” together after a few months. By the five-month mark, he was reportedly so desperate for company that he tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend a mouse.

Research indicates that "perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion." Psychologically, there is also lower subjective well-being. Not surprisingly, the brain and the rest of the body is significantly impacted as well.

For example, a brain peptide called tachykinin may increase, promoting both fear and aggression. In addition, loneliness increases the brain's stress response when it increases hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) activity, and it alters gene expression such that there is decreased inflammatory control and increased glucocorticoid insensitivity with higher rates of metabolic syndrome and diminished immunity, as well as elevated vascular resistance and blood pressure. Crudely put, loneliness correlates with hypertension, diabetes, and a compromised immune system.

To address the loneliness and drudgery of entrapment then, it makes sense to perform immune-boosting and physically revitalizing tasks that lessen the risk of the psychological vulnerabilities:

Cognition: Keep yourself sharp with engaging activities that don't let your brain rot away. From online classes that you are passionate about, to games that keep you sharp, it helps to remember that you can't just wait for things to get back to normal. The key is to choose activities that you care about—ones that will not require excessive effort, but directed cognitive engagement. Track your memory, attention, and sleep to see what's improving.

Depression: Self-help interventions can help a depressed mood. But it's not a one size fits all solution. One paper outlined 50 potential strategies, but their helpfulness varied considerably. In general, the most used strategies are generally the most helpful ones. Finding strategies to create pleasurable distractions, engaging in leisure activities, and identifying the cause of the depression were commonly used but not helpful for everyone. Also, the most helpful strategies such as leaving the house regularly, completing treatment, and overcoming problems with concentration by creating to-do lists were not the most used ones. Writing a weblog or restricting the time spent on worrying does not appeal to most people, either. In my clinical practice, I find that people benefit from adding variety to their lives and switching things up in their schedules to prevent boredom and rumination from setting in.

Social Threat: Loneliness increases social anxiety, include being around people safely where possible. Plan outdoor dining where permissible, or make a group contract about safety and interactions. Avoid addiction to panic-stricken conversations. Virtual reality glasses may help you feel closer to people, especially if you use them safely on a regular basis. 

Closed-Mindedness: Look for news sites with disparate views so that you do not get locked into one point of view. People who take strong sides based on the news, especially when they are uninformed, make their closed-mindedness worse. When in disagreement, try walking in the other person's shoes to understand why they might feel the way they do, even if you do not agree. 

Well-Being: Create a home-based physical exercise program so that you get up out of your chair frequently, walk more, and even keep 1-2 weights at home that you can safely use. Feeling physically fit during the pandemic will improve your mental health. Set realistic but ambitious targets so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment.

Of course, none of these interventions is absolute. And there are many nuances to consider. The main point of this summary is that we are wired to be connected to support our physiology and psychology. Doing this authentically and in a way that pertains to your preferences is key.