Due to the increasing numbers of people being infected with COVID-19 in the United States, many states have ordered a mandatory shelter-in-place. Most of these orders state that people cannot leave their homes except for essential reasons, such as grocery shopping and medical trips. All non-essential businesses, such as restaurants, gyms, and shopping centers, have also been temporarily closed. It is now week 3/4 of quarantine for many people and I have noticed, both in myself and others, that we’re going a little stir-crazy. Due to the common effects I’ve noticed, such as increased anxiety and depression and decreased motivation. I decided to look into the research behind isolation on the human brain.
In a study done in hospitals, researchers examined the impact of isolation on patient psychological well-being. It was found that isolation caused a negative impact on patient behavior and psychology; after isolation, patients scored higher for depression, anxiety, anger, fear, and loneliness. Specifically, patients scored higher for depression and anxiety on day 7 of isolation, compared to controls. This is in-line with what I’ve seen from family and friends, as the first week of quarantine seemed to have little effect, but afterwards, around week 2, did the negative effects I stated earlier appear. The researchers also found that loneliness, anger, and boredom were the most prominent emotional effects.
Another study looked at the effects of isolation on prisoners in long-term solitary confinement and found similar results; their findings revealed that those in forced isolation for extended periods of time exhibited appetite and sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic, anger, paranoia, and loss of control. In some cases, the effects of isolation lasted even after the isolation period ended, and resulted in prisoners engaging in more violent and harmful acts.
These negative consequences seem to make logical sense, as humans are naturally social creatures and our survival depends on social interactions every day. Out of curiosity, I also looked into the effects of isolation on other animals, such as rats, to see if there is a similarity. There indeed was: a study done on isolation of Fawn Hooded and Wistar rats found that Basal loco-motor activity and related anxiety was higher in isolated subjects of both types of rats in low light conditions. However, the study also found that Wistar rats were less anxious under low light conditions, which may imply that certain genetic predispositions may cause an animal to be more or less tolerant of isolation and its negative effects.
Ultimately, the literature supports the idea that humans and many animals alike are not meant to be kept in isolation for an extended period of time. If you find yourself becoming restless, agitated, and feeling down as this quarantine continues, know that your response is completely normal and valid, given the circumstances. When you are experiencing a bad day, don’t be afraid to reach out to family and friends about how you’re feeling. We can and will get through this together.