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  • Dr Lila Landowsk

Tired, anxious and unproductive? How living in isolation affects the brain, and what to do about it

A woman looks through venetian blinds.

After weeks of living in the coronavirus shutdown, for people in many parts of Australia restrictions are finally beginning to lift. But have you noticed that as the weeks passed in isolation, you found you couldn't think as clearly, that you were lethargic, less productive, your mental health deteriorated, or that your attention span dwindled? Or, paradoxically, maybe you had a strange surge in productivity? But iso life isn't completely over yet. So let's take a look at how living in isolation affects the brain, and what we can do about it.

Isolation is inherently stressful We can get a better understanding of how our brains are responding to COVID-19 isolation when we look at past research on people and animals who have been isolated. For example, people travelling in space or imprisoned in solitary confinement, or animals in captivity all give us clues. When we are faced with danger, our brains release hormones that trigger the "flight or flight" response. This serves two main functions — it helps prepare our body to fight the threat or escape to safety, and it also encourages us to band together. The evolutionary basis for this is survival — a cohesive group is more likely to survive a threat. The thing is, the body reacts the exact same way to modern-day stresses, such as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. And because this situation is constant for many of us, we find ourselves in a state of chronic stress. Chronic stress affects the cells in our body — right down to the level of our genes. This explains why some people are having a hard time holding things together, while others are finding that they are the most productive they've been in years. Stress is fundamentally a process that allows our body to function most effectively, to meet the challenges faced at the time — which is why some people report performing much better during isolation. However, a body and brain that are chronically stressed are focused on survival. Being in survival mode comes at the expense of our most sophisticated behaviours — our decision-making skills, our problem solving, our creativity — and we revert back to our more primitive behaviours, such as anger, fear and aggression. Your brain on stress During chronic stress, the part of our brain involved in initiating the fight or flight response, and the generation of our emotions, a region called the amygdala, grows in size as it adapts to the high levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol. However, larger amygdalas are correlated with more aggression across all species — which is why you might find yourself angrier or more emotional. When we're stressed, our brain releases a little burst of the hormone oxytocin, as a coping mechanism. Oxytocin is responsible for that feeling of being close and connected to someone — and it drives us to seek connection with others. Why does our brain release a "bonding" hormone when we're stressed? It serves a really important evolutionary purpose — it is trying to help us survive. It makes us crave that connection with someone, so that when we're stressed, we seek safety in numbers. We reach out for help, we talk our problems through with a friend, and we ultimately feel better. Researchers have also observed the part of our brain involved in decision making, known as the prefrontal cortex, shrinking and becoming more disconnected from other brain areas in response to long-term stress. So if you've been struggling to focus and be productive, this could be why. The prefrontal cortex is important for problem solving, attention, regulating our emotions, and our complex behaviours like personality and creativity.

How to cope Just because there's a biological reason behind why your brain's functioning a little differently right now doesn't mean you can't take control. Here are five aspects of your life that you might feel are a little wonky at the moment, and what you can do about it.

1. Mindfulness and connection For over 50 years, we have known that people who are more socially isolated are more likely to die. The 29 per cent increased risk in mortality for people who have spent years in social isolation is largely due to the effects of chronic stress on the body. When we are socialising with someone we like, our brain releases a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters, which helps us feel closer to that person, happier, and even reduces pain. Socialising activates our brain's reward system, which makes us feel good. This is the same part of the brain that makes food taste great when we're hungry, or is responsible for you feeling elated when your favourite sports team wins a game. It also drives addiction. And socialising doesn't just make us bond with people, it also makes us feel better, by reducing the levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, in our body. You might have noticed that talking on the phone to a loved one leaves you feeling better than texting alone does. This is because text messaging activates the brain's reward pathway, but it doesn't seem to result in the release of oxytocin. In addition to social connection, it seems that connection to self is important too. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga have been shown to help reverse stress-related changes in the brain.

2. Vitamin nature Social deprivation is one thing. What about sensory deprivation? Many of us are already living in small apartments in a concrete jungle, and being in isolation has restricted our ability to get outdoors. When mice are housed in isolation, the levels of certain growth factors in their brain changes after just two weeks. We have the same growth factors in our brain, though to date it has not been possible to measure this in living humans.

3. Sleep tight Depression disrupts sleep. When we look at the brains of people who are depressed, scientists have found that genes involved in our sleep-regulating circadian rhythm change. Even if you aren't feeling depressed, you may still have noticed your sleep cycles change in isolation. Much of this is likely due to a disruption in your routine, and a lack of exposure to light. Exposure to light delays the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. Some of us are having strange dreams, or even nightmares. In isolation, many of us are sleeping longer and waking up more naturally, which is associated with having heightened dream recall. Our dreams are composed of elements of our daily life experiences. When we sleep, our important memories throughout the day are shuttled into long-term memory storage. Some of this occurs in the "shallow" stage of sleep, known as the REM stage, where we experience dreams and are easily woken. You won't remember your dreams if you are woken up in deep sleep. We cycle from REM sleep to deep sleep and back to REM sleep approximately every 90 minutes. Withdrawal from our daily routine has starved our dreams of "inspiration," forcing our subconscious to draw more heavily from past experiences. The more anxiety we feel about our life, the more negative our dreams tend to be. To help improve your sleep, try sticking to a routine and avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed. And lay off the alcohol – it reduces the quality of your sleep.

4. Get physical Many of us are finding that we spending more time vegetating on the couch and aren't getting enough —or any — physical activity. Among many other things, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and raises the levels of these "brain fertiliser" growth factor compounds. It also stimulates the formation of new brain cells. New brain cells are integrated into our brain circuits and are crucial for learning and memory. Feeling forgetful and struggling to learn during isolation? Thirty minutes of moderate intensity exercise every second day may help change this. In fact, just 10 minutes of exercise may improve our attention for the following two to four hours, so if you're struggling to focus, get that blood pumping. 5. Watch what you eat Have you found yourself overeating or binge-eating? Emotional or comfort eating occurs when we try to suppress negative emotions with food. Our body's stress response takes a lot of energy, which is why stress increases our preference for calorie rich foods. Those tasty sweets result in the release of release of dopamine in our brain's reward centre. This is why they make us feel good in the short term. Unfortunately, long term high-fat or high-sugar diets impair brain function by increasing inflammation and reducing neuroplasticity, that is, how adaptable our brain is. This is why you may be struggling to learn after binging on junk food over the past month. Give your isolation brain a boost by laying off the high-sugar or high-fat treats. Have healthy snacks on hand instead, like fruit, vegetables and nuts.

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