With COVID-19 vaccines work and restrictions lifting across the country, the time has finally come for vaccinated people who have been taken home to drop their tracksuit pants and get back out of their Netflix caves. But your brain may not be as eager to immerse itself in your previous social life.
Social distancing measures have been shown to be essential to curb the spread of COVID-19 worldwide – avoiding an estimated rise of 500 million cases. But while it is necessary, 15 months away from each other has affected people’s mental health.
In a national survey last fall, 36% of adults in the United States (including 61% of young adults) reported feeling “severe loneliness” during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest that people would want to enter the social scene.
But if the idea of having small talks in a happy hour full of people sounds scary to you, you’re not alone. Nearly half of Americans reported feeling uncomfortable on the return to in-person interaction regardless of vaccination status.
So how can people be so alone and so nervous about filling their social calendars?
Well, the brain is very adaptable. And while we may not know exactly why our brains have gone through the last year, neuroscientists like me get an idea of how social isolation and resocialization affect the brain.
Social homeostasis: the need to socialize
Humans have an evolutionary need to socialize, although they may not have it at the time of deciding between an invitation to dinner and seeing “Schitt’s Creek”.
From insects to primates, it’s the maintenance of social media critical for survival to the animal kingdom. Social groups provide prospects for mating, cooperative hunting, and protection from predators.
But social homeostasis – the right balance of social connections must be met. Small social networks may not offer these benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and peers. That’s why human brains developed specialized circuits to measure our relationships and make the right adjustments, similar to a social thermostat.
Social homeostasis implies many brain regions, and in the center is the mesocorticolimbic circuit – the “reward system”. This same circuit motivates you to eat chocolate when you want something sweet or slide on Tinder when you want … well, you get the point.
And like these motivations, a recent study found it reducing social interaction provokes social desires – produce patterns of brain activity similar to food deprivation.
So if people are hungry for a social connection like the one who is hungry for food, what happens to their brain when they starve socially?
Your brain about social isolation
Scientists can’t push people into isolation and look at their brain. Instead, researchers rely on laboratory animals to learn more about social brain wiring. Luckily, because social ties are essential in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are which is found between species.
One of the most prominent effects of social isolation is – you guessed it – increased anxiety and stress.
Many studies find that removing animals from their cage mates increases anxiety- and cortisol-like behaviors, the primary stress hormone. Human studies also support this, as do people with small social circles have higher cortisol levels and other anxiety-related symptoms similar to socially deprived laboratory animals.
Evolutionarily, this effect makes sense: they must become animals that lose group protection hypervigilant defend themselves. And it doesn’t just happen in nature. One study found that self-description “lonely ”people are more attentive to social threats such as rejection or exclusion.
Another important region for social homeostasis is the hippocampus – the center of learning and memory of the brain. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors, such as disinterest and cooperation – and recognize the friends of the enemies. But your brain stores huge amounts of information and need remove unimportant connections. So, like most high school Spanish: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
And isolated humans can be so forgotten. Antarctic expeditionaries had shrunken hippocampi after only 14 months of social isolation. Similarly, adults with small social circles are more likely to do so develop memory loss and cognitive impairment later in life.
Therefore, human beings may no longer go by nature, but social homeostasis is still critical to survival. Luckily, as adaptable as the brain is to isolation, the same can happen with resocialization.
Your brain in social reconnection
Although only a few studies have explored the reversibility of anxiety and stress associated with isolation, suggest that resocialization repairs these effects.
One study, for example, found that wetlands used to insulate he first had higher levels of stress and cortisol when he resocialized but then recovered quickly. Adorably, the animals once isolated even spent more time fixing their new friends.
Social memory and cognitive function also seem highly adaptable.
And there can also be hope for people coming out of a socially distanced closure. A recent Scottish study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that residents had it some cognitive decline during the toughest blocking weeks but recovered quickly once the restrictions were eased.
Unfortunately, studies like these are still scarce. And while animal research is informative, it probably represents extreme scenarios, as people weren’t completely isolated for the past year. Unlike mice trapped in cages, many in the United States had virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (luckily we have)
So, power through the nervous chats of the elevator and the annoying brain fog, because “antisocial distancing” should restore your social homeostasis soon.