Members in the Media
From: The Wall Street Journal

Social Isolation’s High Physical and Psychological Toll

When Newton, Mass., closed its schools in mid-March to help stop the spread of coronavirus, Nataly Kogan was thrilled. No more rushing to get breakfast. Her 15-year-old daughter, Mia, could sleep in.

The two did puzzles and made videos to post on TikTok. Ms. Kogan thought she would paint.

“It was bliss,” she recalls. “Full-on denial. Those were two of the best weeks of my life.”

The third week, reality hit. School closures would extend indefinitely. Mia’s summer program at Johns Hopkins University was canceled. So was time with friends.

Ms. Kogan teaches emotional health, she says. It is the subject of her speeches, her books and her company, Happier Inc. But at the end of her third week in isolation, worried about her work and her child, she lost it. She yelled at both daughter and husband, slammed a door and ran out of the house.

“The feeling of hopelessness is paralyzing,” she says.

The changing mood in the Kogan-Spivack household mirrors changes scientists have observed in studies of how polar researchers and astronauts adapt to isolation in situations more extreme than what most people are currently experiencing. In the studies, subjects frequently are gung-ho at the outset, but spirits and energy tend to dip about halfway through an expedition. Days and weeks blur. Productivity often slows and relationships fray in what some researchers refer to as the third-quarter slump. That happens, in part, because our circadian rhythms depend not only on light but on social cues. Moods lift again as the isolation nears an end.

Social distancing is different, of course. But “some of the lessons apply,” says Lawrence Palinkas, a University of Southern California professor whose research has taken him seven times to Antarctica to learn how people adapt to prolonged periods of isolation and confinement.

Prolonged social isolation takes physical and psychological tolls that are well-documented. Numerous studies link isolation and loneliness to depressiondementiaheart attacks and strokes. The health risk of isolation is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University. It shortens lives.

But isolation takes a toll whether the duration is short or long. In lab studies, “we can see changes in blood pressure, increases in stress hormones and inflammation” linked to short-term isolation, Dr. Holt-Lunstad says. Other researchers are studying the impact on immune functioning, cellular aging and sleep disruptions.

“Humans are a social species,” vulnerable at birth and safer in a group, Dr. Holt-Lunstad says. “If we lack proximity to others, our bodies will respond,” she says. “Our brains send signals typically associated with fight or flight. We’re put on heightened alert.”

No wonder, then, that isolation tests the dynamics of small groups confined together—whether in space or in homes across the nation.

Social isolation can undermine productivity for reasons that have nothing to do with disrupted routines or family friction. Circadian rhythms are regulated mostly by exposure to light. But they are also affected by social cues, scientists say. Staying confined at home greatly limits external stimuli and can trigger a physiological and psychological response similar to the behavior of animals in hibernation. Study subjects—at the South Pole and in space—are apt to slow down, sleep more and get more forgetful, scientists say.

“They go through a period of physical and psychological torpor,” says USC’s Dr. Palinkas. It’s a problem NASA is grappling with as it lays the groundwork for a trip to Mars.

The polar scientists generally were seen to regain their energy when they knew an expedition would soon end. Nobody knows when social distancing will end. Since lockdowns began, Ms. Kogan has been giving virtual talks to hospital workers from Boston to Rochester, N.Y., on themes of happiness and gratitude. At each, she says, audience members inevitably ask: Do you think something good will come out of this?

Read the whole story (subscription may be required): The Wall Street Journal

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