What months of lockdown do to your body and brain
- As stay-at-home measures ease, people are eager to get out for reasons that make sense, psychologically and physiologically.
- Loneliness is uncomfortable, for example, because your body is trying to prompt you to seek connection.
- Physically, moving less can contribute to restlessness or lethargy.
- While the ability to go out more now can feel particularly great, it's still critical to take precautions to prevent needing to lock down again.
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You'll likely be in an "unpleasant state" after a period of social isolation, since humans thrive, and survive, on interaction.
Humans don't just like to be social, we need to be.
In fact, people who have weaker social relationships are 50% more likely to die over a given period than those with more robust connections, according to a 2015 meta-analysis including more than 308,000 people.
Put another way, being lonely seems to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
That's why depriving yourself of social connections, even temporarily, doesn't feel good: Your body is trying to tell you to mingle so that, long-term, you stay alive.
"If we think about loneliness as this adaptive response kind of like hunger and thirst, it's this unpleasant state that motivates us to seek out social connections just like hunger motivates us to seek out food," lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in the US, told Business Insider.
Of course, she said, in a situation like a pandemic that requires you to reduce or eliminate your face-to-face contact, that discomfort needs to be endured to stave off more dangerous, immediate effects.
The disruption of routine, including the activities that usually boost your mood, can also feel like an uncomfortable "jolt."
Not going to work, school, social events, or the gym means lacking "social rhythm reinforcers" and causing stress, Simon Rego, chief psychologist at Montefiore Health System and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told TODAY.
"The removal of those things that normally lift our mood - like connecting with others, feeling we had a good productive day, getting out and exercising, moving about - when you take those things away … it can potentially have an impact on people's mood," he said.
Feeling frequently bored can also be a new, and uncomfortable, experience.
If you're used to being busy - often, too busy - the boredom of quarantine can also be a new, and depleting, experience.
While boredom is a normal and even healthy human state, people who experience it more often experiencing it more often tend to have more anxiety and are more prone to depression, research has shown.
Fortunately, the study authors found, how you react to boring situations makes all the difference in how distressing it is. Experts recommend keeping or creating some routine, including perhaps new hobbies, to help while away the time.
The effects of not physically moving as much can mess with your mind, too.
Whether you'd been confined to a room because you'd been exposed to the virus or worked from home because your office or jurisdiction required it, a reduction in physical activity can affect your mind.
Look to injured athletes for an extreme example. Athletes may experience "emotional upheaval" when they're injured, in large part because they no longer have the coping mechanism that may have kept these feelings at bay.
That may manifest as sadness, irritation, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions.
Reducing or virtually eliminating your physical activity can also cause your muscles to atrophy.
"Use it or lose it" is a cliche for a reason: It's true.
Another study found that obese adults who worked out for four months and then took a month off lost most of the improvements to their aerobic capacity, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol.
While elite performance coach and human movement specialist Luke Worthington told Insider's Rachel Hosie "strength and aerobic conditioning are actually pretty resilient," he did admit that after about four weeks of inactivity, you'll start to soften.
The effects of a quarantine can be psychologically damaging in the long term.
According to February research in the Lancet that included 24 previous studies on the psychological effects of quarantines during disease outbreaks, the experience can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, confusion, anger, fear, and substance misuse.
The most vulnerable people, the study authors said, are those who have or have had mental health issues.
More recent research suggests these negative effects are playing out in the current pandemic, with 55% of respondents in a survey by the Benenson Strategy Group saying the coronavirus has affected their mental health.
Many mental health professionals have warned the isolation will lead to a serious mental-health crisis, skyrocketing depression rates, and even increases in suicide.
Of course, how severe the effects are depend on your situation, personality, and history.
How affected you are by a period of social isolation, or just reduced physical interactions, is also influenced by your personality.
"If you're a massive extrovert who thrives on social contact" the experience is going to hit harder "than if you're an introvert who's very comfortable curling up on a couch with a book," psychologist Dr. Sherry Benton told Business Insider.
As lockdowns ease, don't forget to continue to virtually reach out to others.
Being quarantined today is less socially straining than just a decade ago.
Tools like FaceTime and Skype "may help relieve some of those short-term unpleasant responses to help us still feel and maintain those connections without potentially putting ourselves at risk of being exposed to the virus," Holt-Lunstad said.
Holt-Lunstad added that the silver lining to something like a directive to stay home is the ability to slow down and connect with the people closest to us.
"When you're having people still express love and support in a variety of ways, it can make those periods of relative confinement more bearable," she said.
Don't forget to continue to do so even when you're no longer confined.
While it's understandable to experience "quarantine fatigue," take care not to let it lead to bad decisions.
Just because you may have an increased ability to get out these days doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind.
"The virus doesn't care if we're bored," social psychologist Tony Lemieux previously told Insider.
Continue to keep your distance from people you don't live with, wear a mask when you can't, avoid indoor places where people aren't masked, and stay home if you're sick.
Doing so may be temporarily inconvenient, but less so than needing to lockdown again - something that some cities may need to pursue.
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