Experts Explain What Social Distancing Can Do To Your Brain

by JR Thorpe
A woman lies on her couch while practicing social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak
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If you're following government recommendations to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, you might be trying to think positive: pajamas all day! naps! Golden Girls reruns! But after a week or so of Netflix, dancing in the kitchen, cooking marathons, and talking to your cat, it can be easy to wonder how quarantine affects your brain.

Research shows that spending time alone can change our behaviors and emotional responses and even shift the physical structures of our brains. The mental impact of coronavirus-driven isolation is going to be highly individual, Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle.

"For most people, self-isolation is going to create a significant amount of uncertainty," he says. "That uncertainty can lead to feelings of anxiety and panic, boredom, fear, and loneliness."

"As humans, we are wired for connection and belonging, and long periods of time in isolation can and do have a significant impact on mental health," Dr. Heather Stevenson Phys.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. Data from therapy provider Talkspace even shows that enquiries about virtual therapy appointments have gone up 17% since late February.

To be clear, social distancing is an incredibly important move to "flatten the curve," or reduce the rate at which coronavirus spreads to lessen the impact on our healthcare system. Avoiding large gatherings for a little while means “You're going to slow the spread of an infection and [have] more time to prepare to fight the infection,” as Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD’s Senior Medical Director, previously told Bustle.

Still, while everyone is doing their part to try to contain the virus, you can still prepare for the effect social distancing might have on your mental health. Scientists know a great deal about how the brain responds to prolonged periods cooped up inside without a lot of social interaction — including what to do about it.

Practicing Social Distancing During The Coronavirus Pandemic Might Change The Brain

A little time without any social interaction at all can change your brain. Research published in Cell in 2018 found that mice who'd been subject to social isolation for two weeks started to produce brain chemicals that made them aggressive to threats, sensitive to stimuli, and prone to high stress levels. Another study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2012, also in mice, found that eight weeks of social isolation also disrupted the production of myelin, or white matter, in parts of the brain associated with complex emotions. Total isolation in a lab isn't comparable to being shut up in an apartment with Skype, WhatsApp, and friends on speakerphone, but it's still an indication that a long time without social interaction can be a problem.

Being Isolated Can Increase Anxiety & Depression

Emotionally, people may have different responses to long periods with less social interaction than normal, Dr. Klapow says. While people who feel threatened or at risk might experience a sense of safety and protection while separated from others, people who don't feel that isolation is necessary might feel lonely and distressed.

Research shows that self-isolation may also raise the risk of symptoms of depression and anxiety. After extended periods on their own, says neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez Ph.D, people may feel increased loneliness, panic, paranoia, tightness in the chest, boredom, frustration, or fear. Rarely, some people may experience depersonalization, a phenomenon where their body and thoughts don't seem like their own.

If you're feeing anxious or experiencing mental health symptoms that concern you, reach out to a therapist or online support service.

Being Alone For A Long Time During The Coronavirus Pandemic May Encourage Rumination

Rumination, a tendency to go over the same worrying thoughts over and over again, has been linked to both anxiety and depression, and experts say it can be common in people in isolation. "Without a regular schedule to adhere to, and people to see, and a change of scenery, our brains tend to go into overdrive with worst-case scenario thinking," Dr. Hafeez says. Part of the issue, she notes, is that in times of crisis we seek out information, and 24/7 coronavirus news may contribute to cycles of worrying and doomsday thinking, rather than soothing them. This is another area where therapy can help.

Taking Care Of Mental Health While Self-Isolating For Coronavirus Is Important

The effects of quarantine on the brain can be mediated with social interaction, experts tell Bustle. "Calling friends and loved ones over the phone or video can help relieve some of the stress and loneliness and increase feelings of connection," Dr. Stevenson tells Bustle. She also recommends going for walks if you can (while staying six feet away from others), and reaching out to a therapist via video session if you find yourself struggling with your mental health. Call local therapists to see if they do phone or Skype appointments, or use a service like Talkspace or Betterhelp to find the right support for you. Text hotlines like Crisis Text Line (text "home" to 741-741) can also help you talk through acute moments of distress. Data from therapy provider Talkspace even shows that enquiries about virtual therapy appointments have gone up 17% since late February.

"The negative mental health effects of self-isolation are more prone to happen if you don't have a plan and a way to keep yourself engaged and active," Dr. Stevenson says.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.


Dr. Sanam Hafeez Ph.D, neuropsychologist

Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist

Dr. Heather Stevenson Phys.D., clinical psychologist

Studies cited:

Cornwell, E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of health and social behavior, 50(1), 31–48.

Liu, J., Dietz, K., DeLoyht, J. et al. (2012). Impaired adult myelination in the prefrontal cortex of socially isolated mice. Nat Neurosci 15, 1621–1623.

Zelikowsky, M., Hui, M., Karigo, T., Choe, A., Yang, B., Blanco, M. R., … Anderson, D. J. (2018). The Neuropeptide Tac2 Controls a Distributed Brain State Induced by Chronic Social Isolation Stress. Cell, 173(5). doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.03.037