Isolation and Monotony Stress the Brain. Here's How to Cope

By: Wendy Bowman  | 

Social isolation, loneliness and the monotony of an unchanging routine can have far-reaching effects on the brain and on our mental health because they act on our bodies like stress. Comstock Images/Getty Images

If you're anything at all like me these days, life in quarantine has started to resemble the movie "Groundhog Day." A monotonous series of 24-hour increments where you wake, brush your teeth, put on some real clothes (or maybe not), feed the pets, drink some coffee and work for most of the day before winding down for some dinner and TV binging. Then it's off to bed, only to get up and do it all over again the next day, and the next day and the next day ... you get my drift.

It's also highly likely that, for some people, your dog has become your closest confidant, sans the freedom to interact at will daily with friends, family, co-workers, people you share a hobby with and even strangers at the grocery store. Instead, much of this activity has been put on an indefinite halt because of stay-home-and-shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic. The result? A form of social isolation and loneliness unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetime.

"The current situation is really a double-whammy," explains Dr. Henry Mahncke, a research neuroscientist who serves as CEO of Posit Science, the leading provider of plasticity-based brain training and assessments, in an email interview. "If we had to stay at home, but friends and family could visit, we would have social contact. Or if we were permitted to go out of the house, but had to be on our own, we would have cognitive stimulation. But we are being asked to forgo social contact and cognitive stimulation, which is a double burden for our brain health."

Adding to this is a barrage of news about COVID-19 all day every day and a wealth of uncertainty, which leads to increased stress and anxiety, says Dr. Elena Villanueva, a functional holistic medicine expert, as well as founder and chief health coach of Modern Holistic Health, in an email interview. "This constant negative exposure to stressful situations can have a serious effect on our brains."


How Does Isolation and Anxiety Affect the Brain?

As Villanueva explains, a primitive area of the brain called the amygdala that's responsible for our fight-or-flight response in stressful situations is activated when fear and anxiety assume control. In turn, this causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and while that would be useful in a life-or-death situation, it's not so helpful when you're exposed to chronic life stress.

"As you surround yourself with negative thoughts and stress, the amygdala overrides the voice of reason in the frontal lobe of our brain," says Villanueva. "When this happens, our emotions take over and we lose the ability to rationally think. The stress surrounding COVID-19 can leave us in a chronic state of 'amygdala hijack,' putting us in a constant fight-or-flight state that causes our stress hormone cortisol to rise."

The remedy is simple, but for a lot of people, not so easy: Try to disconnect from the nonstop social media and news, or risk facing what Villanueva calls neuroplasticity. "Science has discovered the brain's amazing ability to 'reroute' its own pathways in an effort to maintain its own health and efficiency of message transmission," she says, "but these pathways can become rerouted in a manner that can lead to chronic anxiety and mind racing, and ultimately, chronic depression.

"This 'rerouting' happens in response to constant negative input, which causes a physiological stress response to the entire body that alters blood sugar, blood pressure, brain chemistry, hormones and nutrient utilization, just to name a few," she continues. "Choosing what to do during your home lockdown will determine how your body and your brain function, either positively or not."

Just like the body needs physical activity to sustain itself, the brain also needs cognitive skills and activities to sustain itself, according to Mahncke. And without the new learning and social interaction that go along with ordinary life outside of the house, the brain doesn't get the input it needs to stay sharp and healthy.

"There's a tremendous amount we know from studying animal models that tells us social isolation is bad for brain health — both physically and functionally," he says. "Even rats, who actually have a much more active social life than many people might think, show significant changes to neuronal connections, neural growth factors and brain-related hormonal activity after periods of social isolation."


What Can We Do to Feed Our Brains?

  • Turn ordinary activities into brain-stimulating activities. While out for a walk in your neighborhood, Mahncke suggests stimulating your brain by working to notice something new or taking a different route each time. When talking on the phone to a friend or family member, he also recommends using attention to detail and expressive language to really describe your surroundings, as well as what you can see and hear. "As your conversation partner does the same, use your mental imagery to vividly imagine their circumstances," he says. "This kind of mental imagery activates the brain in much the same way as actually being somewhere does."
  • Get out as much as you can. Getting outside every day, even for a short period of time, also can improve your mood. "Not only is a little sun great for Vitamin D production," says Villanueva, "but a walk or jog helps strengthen the body and increase heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain."
  • Think about learning something new, or returning to a hobby you haven't done for a while. "The best activities for brain health are the ones that challenge your brain to be quick and accurate," says Mahncke. Have a musical instrument sitting in the closet or the garage? Now's the time to pull it out, dust it off and try it. Always enjoyed board games? Learn the rules and strategy to a new one. Dust off those old scrapbook supplies. Or use one of those adult coloring books that are so popular now. "Crafting has shown to help relieve stress and focus the mind," says Villanueva.
  • Do some brain-training. Taken up an at-home exercise routine to keep your body strong during these times? You also can adopt an at-home brain-training program to keep your brain fit. "At Posit Science, we've developed BrainHQ, which is a set of brain exercises that have been proven to work in more than 100 published scientific papers," Mahncke explains. "These exercises are based on the principles of brain plasticity — the way the brain reorganizes through learning and experience."
  • Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, and make sure you're getting adequate sleep. "Food nourishes our body and brain, so eating high-quality whole foods like greens, vegetables, fruits, quality proteins and healthy fats will help keep our body and mind healthy," says Villanueva. She adds that getting adequate and quality sleep also will do wonders when it comes to improving your mental health, memory and focus, and even putting you in a better mood.


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