Diseases and Disorders

The Potential Effects of Pandemic-Induced Isolation

Nora Mehler


Abstract

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our everyday social interactions have become virtual. The replacement of face-to-face communications with a remote equivalent, combined with general social distancing measures, could be harmful to people’s mental and physical well-being. Studies have shown that most people prefer in-person to online relationships, while chronic loneliness can increase one’s risk for inflammatory illnesses. With no end to the pandemic in sight, these facts must be considered so as to minimize the negative mental consequences of long-term social distancing procedures.
 

Modern-Day Loneliness

Even though nearly a year has passed since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it is still impossible to have social gatherings and interactions as we did before. This situation affects everyone differently, but the lack of face-to-face interactions and interpersonal closeness is taking a toll. In the United Kingdom, 24% of adults and 44% of people aged eighteen to twenty-four reported feeling lonely when surveyed in April, compared to the 10% and 16%, respectively, who reported those feelings in a survey prior to the lockdown period [5]. Although restrictions have been eased since the beginning of the shutdown, the general theme remains the same. Life everywhere has been impacted by the pandemic, with the most drastic changes being in the realm of social interactions. 

 

Importance of Social Interactions

By nature, humans are social creatures, reliant on interactions with one another for the maintenance of social and emotional well-being. Loneliness and social isolation, especially when sustained for long periods of time, are detrimental to our mental health as they are directly linked to depression and hastened mental decline [1]. In fact, a study found that, when shown pictures of pleasant objects, lonely individuals show greater activation of the ventral striatum, which is involved in feelings of reward and the release of dopamine. On the other hand, non-lonely people had stronger activation of the ventral striatum when they saw pictures of pleasant people [7]. A lack of dopamine release resulting from a lack of pleasant social stimulation can have detrimental long-term effects in terms of both mood and neurological function, as dopamine is strongly associated not only with feelings of happiness and reward but also with motor control.  For young children, interactions with peers is essential in developing language and social skills [2]. The elderly are also at risk; in fact, people who believe they are socially isolated were found to have higher levels of infection-fighting myeloid cells, which can lead to an increased risk of chronic disease [3]. Not only that, but long-term perceived loneliness can alter the way in which people perceive stimulation, as can be seen in a study using fMRI imaging led by J. T. Cacioppo. In this study, researchers found that there was more activation in the visual cortex of lonely individuals than non-lonely individuals when they were shown pictures of unpleasant social situations, which suggests that lonely individuals pay more attention to negative stimuli in social situations and therefore experience social interactions in such a way that is different from non-lonely people [7]. Because loneliness can affect the brain at a biological level and alters the brain’s responses to stimuli, the long-term loss of normal and fulfilling social interactions has the potential to negatively affect an entire generation of children and adolescents who require social interactions for growth and development. 

 

Online Versus In-Person Interactions

Of course, the vast majority of people are able to remain connected to their friends and family throughout the pandemic with texts, calls, and FaceTime calls. In terms of schooling, teachers and students are able to see one another and interact over platforms such as Zoom. But is that enough? A 2010 study of digital versus in-person relationships, published by Oregon State University, revealed that those who interacted in-person felt a greater connection to their partner and had more positive interactions [6]. Since 2010, our reliance on technology has only grown and has become even more significant in light of the COVID-19 crisis. However, significant daily screen-time also has a negative impact on mental function. When the blue light from screens offsets the circadian rhythm and leads to a decrease in melatonin levels at night, REM sleep is interrupted. REM sleep is necessary for transforming new information into memories because it is a period of heightened brain activity, and therefore important in processing and ultimately remembering information taught in school [8]. For over half a year, technology has been the primary method of extended social interaction. However, if in-person interactions are more valuable in terms of minimizing loneliness, everyone should be concerned about the collective mental health of our nation. 

 

In Terms of the Pandemic

In general, people value face-to-face interactions, as they allow for unobstructed communication and connection. The restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have created massive changes in what those interactions look like. With the effects of chronic loneliness and social isolation in mind, it is extremely important to consider the long-term consequences of our remote lives in the event that we have many months before a safe, effective vaccine is available.  It will be extremely interesting to see what, if any, changes are there in reported loneliness and correlating illnesses as the course of the pandemic and social distancing continues into the foreseeable future. For example, is the effect of loneliness on dopamine levels enough to put lonely individuals at a greater risk for diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease, which are theorized to be caused by a lack of dopamine? The psychological impact of social distancing is very important because loneliness can affect the biochemistry of the brain, which ultimately impacts mental function as a whole.


References


  1. Novotney, Amy. (05/2019). The risks of social isolation. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation. Retrieved: 09/17/2020.

  2. Coplan, Robert J. and Kimberly A. Arbeau. (2009). Peer Interactions and Play in Early Childhood. Handbook of Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups. 143–161. Retrieved: 09/17/2020.

  3. Cole, Steven W. et al. (08/12/2015). Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. https://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15142. Retrieved: 09/17/2020.

  4. Functional MRI. (05/03/2016). https://www.ptb.de/cms/en/ptb/fachabteilungen/abt8/fb-81/ag-812/fmri-812.html. Retrieved: 12/27/2020.

  5. Loneliness during coronavirus. Mental Health Foundation. (11/09/2020). https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/loneliness-during-coronavirus. Retrieved: 09/17/2020.

  6. Okdie, Bradley M. et al. (2011). Getting to know you: Face-to-face versus online interactions. Computers in Human Behavior. 153–159. https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/sites/liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/files/psychology/research/okdie_guadagno_bernieri_geers_mclarney-vesotski_2011.pdf. Retrieved: 09/17/2020.

  7. Cacioppo, Stephanie et al. (11/30/2016). Toward a neurology of loneliness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5130107/. Retrieved: 11/18/2020.

  8. Tähkämö, L., Partonen, T., & Pesonen, A. K. (02/2019). Systematic review of light exposure impact on human circadian rhythm. Chronobiology international, 36(2), 151–170. https://doi.org/10.1080/07420528.2018.1527773. Retrieved: 12/27/2020.

Nora Mehler

Nora Mehler


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