Our response to COVID-19

We're supporting people to maintain their wellbeing and manage isolation.

Iso burnout and stress as we readjust

By Dr Steve Kassem

Over the past few months, people all over the world have been and continue to practice social distancing, isolating themselves to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what impact is this having on our brains?

After so long at home, chances are many of us are tired, lonely and most likely suffering from isolation burnout, or as I would put it isolation stress. Historically instead called cabin fever, there is a stress we feel that is associated with isolation. I know I am feeling it, and at least anecdotally, I know many others are too. Even now, as restrictions ease, we are prone to being stressed. Is this bad for our mental health? Yes!

We are social creatures principally, not computers or machines, but social creatures. Our brain is almost entirely dedicated to social interactions or influences to those interactions. Be it how we read facial cues, how we try to gain status in our community, how we flush when embarrassed or even how we try to help our fellow man. It all stems from a brain that is almost entirely dedicated to social interactions.

Looking back historically, we managed to win against the Neanderthals not because we are bigger or smarter, but because we are social. So it would make sense that if I were to isolate you from social interaction that it would be distressing to the brain. In fact, other animals, like the mouse, are also very social, and if we isolate them from their group, they suffer severe consequences.

Stress isn’t all bad, it’s a mechanism our body has to tell us, “look this is not the best situation, let’s get out of here.” It’s that feeling you get in your stomach when you need to give a public talk, or before a test. It actually helps us, gives us a little boost to mental acuity and physical speed.

However, when stress is chronic, like it is in the current conditions, it damages the brains cells. Neurons when subjected to chronic levels of stress, stress that doesn’t stop, begin to collapse and it leads to a loss of brain volume. Although we are not likely to be at that level yet, it is our progression towards this that explains the cabin fever we feel. It’s the isolation burnout that is making us feel lethargic, anxious or otherwise just unwell.

But, there are things you can do to offset it. I don’t want you getting stressed about getting stressed. Mindfulness and anything you find relaxing helps. This is subjective, but just as you are sensitive to knowing when you are stressed, you are sensitive to knowing when you are relaxed, be it a good book, a movie, mediation or even a game.

A final take away, is try to engage in social interaction now that it is allowed – even if it is virtual. As I said earlier, we are social creatures, and although we miss out on body language, smells, environment and a whole bunch of other social cues, we still respond to auditory and visual cues when video calling.