By now, you may have noticed a divide among your friends. As social distancing and self-imposed quarantine wear on and more workplaces urge employees to avoid the office, the Covid-19
outbreak has left many people more alone than they’ve been in a long time, or ever.
Some are responding by hunkering down into cozy domesticity: baking bread, reading books, taking long baths. Others have begun to fray: FaceTiming with friends is a necessity, not a luxury; the closure of a favorite coffee shop is cause for tears; the walls seem to be closing in. Be kind to your local extroverts. They’re having a hard time.
Still, no matter how hygge you’re feeling at this moment, experts suggest that the negative feelings and experiences associated with prolonged isolation will come for us all.
Humans are social creatures-yes, all of us. While the coronavirus pandemic
is an extreme, largely unprecedented moment, the kind of seclusion that’s been eating at people over the last few weeks is not as uncommon an experience as you might imagine.
The impacts of social isolation on our bodies and minds have been felt and studied in a variety of different groups, from astronauts to incarcerated people to immuno-compromised children to Antarctic researchers to the elderly. The patterns that have emerged from their experiences with radical aloneness illuminate ways to understand and improve your own.
Alexander Chouker, a physician researcher who studies stress immunology at the University of Munich, has seen radical changes in the bodies of people participating in simulations of manned spaceflight missions like Mars-500
. “They were young and trained people not in a condition of real threat,” he says. “The pure fact of being confined affects the body. If you change your environment in a quite extreme way, it is changing you.”
Participants, some of whom were only isolated for three months, experienced changes to their sleep, changes to their immune, endocrine, and neurocognitive systems, and alterations to their metabolisms. “Being confined and isolated affects the human physiology as a whole,” Chouker says.