How to tackle social isolation

As Aristotle once said we, humans, are social animals and we are not meant to be alone. You need other people in your life. Our brains are literally programmed to desire to be part of a social group. It desires the feeling of available help, must you need it. Research shows that when this need is not fulfilled, it can lead to depressive or anxious feelings. So, there are a ton of benefits, mentally and physically, from having an active social life. A study from an American university among students, for example, showed that those who had an active social life were healthier and at lesser risk of having a heart attack.

Looking from a neuropsychological perspective, our brains have certain facets that can be linked to social behaviour. We call this the ‘social brain’ and it covers brain areas that activate when we connect with others. They activate when, for example, you talk to your friends or spend time with a loved one. During adolescence these parts are still developing and social interactions are crucial during this time. Friendships during adolescence can be seen as a fundamental part of their future relationships and even their mental health. We also know that when individuals have weaker social skills, their brain areas are less active or even less developed.

So what happens when we do not have these social interactions for a while? This past year has had a huge impact on our social lives, among almost every other facet of our lives. The Vrije Universiteit  (VU) from Amsterdam set out a questionnaire among their students, as well as students from other big universities in the Netherlands, and they found that more than half of them had mental issues because of the lockdown. They felt more lonely, had more trouble finding concentrating and motivation for their studies. More than half of the students dealt with sadness and the severe depressive feelings among students had risen by almost 10 percent. So, I think it is safe to say that this lockdown has had some serious consequences for students. Talking from my own point of view, and I think a lot of students can relate to this, I really miss the feeling of going to university (or whichever school you go to) and hanging out with my so called ‘university friends’. Studying online, no matter how hard they try to make it work, just does not feel the same way. Such a big part of studying is being around other students, during classes or having a drink after an exam, you feel connected to other students and part of the community. The fact that we don’t have any of this anymore shows to be of negative impact on our overall experience.

Social isolation, which is what we can call this past year due to the global pandemic, also has an impact on our brains and hormones. There has been research done where they have isolated mice for two weeks and monitored their behaviour and neurotransmitter (the chemical messengers in your brain) levels. After two weeks of isolation the mice showed higher levels of neurokinin B. This neurotransmitter can lead to more aggressive and anxious behaviour, as well as higher levels of stress. This can be translated to humans as well. During a time of isolation your brain gets less active as well, since you are in the same environment all day every day and you get less input from others.

Even though there is so much we cannot do these days, luckily this doesn’t mean we have to be alone and stuck inside all day. I have gathered some tips for you to tackle the social isolation (within the COVID guidelines):

  • Move your body! Prof. dr. Erik Scherder, a well-known Dutch neuropsychologist (and my favourite one) is a huge advocate of moving your body in order to keep your brain healthy. Physical movement is so important for not only your physical health, I don’t think I need to explain that to you, but is also crucial for your mental health. When we move our body, endorphins are released. Those can lift your mood immediately
  • Spend time with friends (but still following the guidelines)! Relationships are so important for your wellbeing, I hope I’ve made that clear. The thing that stops the negative consequences of social isolation is social interaction. When we interact with our loved ones, our brain releases oxytocin. This is a hormone that is also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. Oxytocin gives us a feeling of connection and love. This hormone has been linked to decreasing levels of pain, both physical pain and emotional pain.
  • Meet with fellow students online to study together! I know that online meetings are so not the same as real-life meetings, but it does give you a chance to get in contact with your friend from school. Besides that, knowing someone else is studying as well can give your motivation and concentration a boost (I know it does for me).
  • Be kind to yourself! This time has been so tough and insecure for all of us, don’t underestimate that. So if you need a self-care day, take it. Treat yourself to good food and warm blankets when you need it. Don’t think that you need to be fine all the time, you are allowed some time to be kind to yourself.