Isolation bad for humans wired to be social, neuroscientist says

If you’re feeling a little bit slower these days, you might be able to blame it on biology.

That’s because isolation is bad for the brain, says University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson. “People have trouble focusing. They make more mistakes. There’s something about social interaction that’s almost like a recharge of the brain,” Krigolson said. “And we generally need that.”

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Most of the research done on the impact of isolation looks at total isolation, meaning zero human interaction, and shows it’s bad for mental health, with increased depression, PTSD symptoms, loss of mental sharpness and even weakened immune systems.

Krigolson said the closest parallel to the semi-isolation many are living in right now is the experience of astronauts confined to a small space with just a few others. The effect of isolation appears to be the same, but it takes hold at a slower rate, he said. “They start to go weird. Like, they start having issues,” said Krigolson, who has himself spent time in a simulated Mars habitat testing a technology that measures cognitive function.

After about two months, researchers start to see an increase in depression and interpersonal conflict, he said.

Krigolson said people are hardwired to be social and are not meant to be alone. “When we see people, we have instant emotional responses that are very, like a subconscious level, so you don’t even know you’re having them. And that’s just part of the way we are. So the prolonged isolation isn’t good for us.”

Krigolson said the current situation is a bit unusual, because most people aren’t completely isolated. They’re having interactions with their families or roommates in person, brief encounters with strangers when they venture outside for essential activities, and online conversations through video conferencing.

However, research shows online interactions are not the same as in-person ones, Krigolson said.

“The emotional responses you get, the way your brain handles it, isn’t the same as real world,” he said. “It’s still better than nothing, and I think that’s a bit of an unknown.”

Clinical neuropsychologist Vinay Bharadia said individual resiliency is a big predictor of how someone handles the challenge of isolation and the return to normal.

While biology plays a role in how resilient an individual is, it’s a skill one can learn, said Bharadia, who has a PhD in clinical neuropsychology and is chair of the neuropsychology chapter of the Canadian Psychological Association.

There are four components to building resilience, he said: emotional regulation, physical exercise, social connection and imitating a resilient role model.

“The last one is to try and identify people in your circle or even in, you know, the greater human sphere, who look like they’re recovering quickly from hardship,” Bharadia said. “What are they doing and what can I try to adopt?”

He suggests asking the role model for ideas, such as how to maintain a positive outlook, keep up with physical fitness or stick to a schedule.

Regulating emotions means accepting and processing feelings rather than being overwhelmed by emotions, said Bharadia, who suggested a couple of techniques to achieve that.

One, known as cognitive reappraisal, involves reinterpreting adverse events to reframe them more positively.

It’s based on the understanding that thoughts, feelings and behaviour are all interrelated, so thoughts influence how one feels and acts and vice versa.

For example, Bharadia suggests turning phrases such as “I’m stuck in my house” to “I’m safe in the house spending time with my family.”

A fear of getting sick can be reframed as: “I’ll do everything in my power to keep myself safe.”

The second technique in emotional regulation is mindfulness, which involves bringing attention to the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or future.

“And essentially, a lot of mindfulness meditation uses the breath as your anchor. You notice the breath going out, either in your belly or the tip of your nose. And every time you notice your mind wandering to a chain of thoughts, you just gently bring your attention back to the breath,” Bharadia said.

Mindfulness is not about changing or fighting off thoughts, he said, but accepting thoughts as they come and focusing attention on the present moment.

“You’re trying to stay right here, right now,” he said. “Right here, right now, I have food in my belly. Right here, right now, I am alive.”

For anyone having difficulties, Bharadia recommends looking for a clinic that offers counselling online or over the phone.

The B.C. government recently announced $5 million in funding to increase access to free or low-cost virtual mental-health services in response to COVID-19.

Jonny Morris, CEO of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said the association is grateful to receive funding from the government to expand access to virtual services to meet immediate needs.

He anticipates the impact on mental health is likely to be long lasting even once physical distancing measures start to lift gradually, noting that the province was already facing a fragmented mental health system before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

“We encourage government to keep an eye on where further investment might be needed,” he said.

He recommends a number of online resources for anyone who wants to access mental health supports for the first time, including Bounceback, Here to Help and the CMHA's COVID-19 resource page.

Morris said a mental health check-in quiz will become available online on April 20 to help people assess the state of their mental health and identify next steps in accessing support.

For urgent support, call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

Mental health resources:

heretohelp.bc.ca/

bouncebackbc.ca/

cmha.bc.ca/covid-19/

The province's list of virtual mental health supports:

www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/health/managing-your-health/mental-health-substance-use/virtual-supports-covid-19

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