What Happens in the Brain When You’re Alone
Your brain responds to stress differently when you’re by yourself
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
This week’s issue is a preview from a series of stories I’m working on called “Your Poor Pandemic Brain” to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. going into lockdown and what it’s done to our mental health. I’ve been immersed in this topic for the past month, so I thought I’d offer a sneak peek of what I’m finding out.
The past 12 months have been filled with stress — enormous, unending stress that our brains are not evolutionarily equipped to handle. One stressor in particular that is unique to this pandemic and that may have an outsized impact on psychological health is social isolation. This is because loneliness and isolation strip people of one of the most important coping mechanisms that can protect against mental illness: human connection.
I know I’m feeling this. I go days without leaving the house, weeks seeing only my fiancé and my dog. There are Zoom calls with friends and co-workers, but they are a stopgap, and when I sign off, I still feel unconnected, unsatiated. As two of the psychologists interviewed for this piece put it, Zoom calls are the junk food of social interaction; they are the equivalent of a bag of Doritos when you’re starving. You’ll raise your glass on Zoom and shake the bag of crumbs into your mouth, but you’re still left feeling empty.
Your brain, stressed and lonely
“Humans are a social species,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “Our brains have evolved to expect proximity to others. Throughout human history, we’ve had to rely on others for survival, and when we lack proximity to others, particularly trusted others, in essence, our brains have to work harder.”
By robbing us of human connection, the coronavirus has also robbed us of our primary means of accessing support and mitigating the ramifications of…