What a coronavirus quarantine does to your body and brain, and how to cope | Business Insider

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(Anna Medaris Miller, Business Insider)

You’ll likely be in an “unpleasant state” after a period of social isolation, since humans thrive, and survive, on interaction.

friends coffee

Humans don’t just like to be social, we need to be.

In fact, people who have weaker social relationships are 50% more likely to die over a given period than those with more robust connections, according to a 2015 meta-analysis including more than 308,000 people. 

Put another way, being lonely seems to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

That’s why depriving yourself of social connections, even temporarily, doesn’t feel good: Your body is trying to tell you to mingle so that, long-term, you stay alive.  

“If we think about loneliness as this adaptive response kind of like hunger and thirst, it’s this unpleasant state that motivates us to seek out social connections just like hunger motivates us to seek out food,” lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told Business Insider. 

Of course, she said, in a situation like a pandemic that requires you to reduce or eliminate your face-to-face contact, that discomfort needs to be endured to stave off more dangerous, immediate effects. 

The effects of not physically moving as much can mess with your mind, too.

working from home stressed

Whether you’re confined to a room because you’ve been exposed to the virus or simply working from home because your office or jurisdiction now requires it, this reduction in physical activity can affect your mind.

Look to injured athletes for an extreme example. Athletes may experience “emotional upheaval” when they’re injured, in large part because they no longer have the coping mechanism that may have kept these feelings at bay. 

That may manifest as sadness, irritation, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions.

Reducing or virtually eliminating your physical activity can also cause your muscles to atrophy.

negative effects of watching tv

“Use it or lose it” is a cliche for a reason: It’s true. 

A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that just two weeks of inactivity can begin to negate gains to your heart and muscle mass, according to US News & World Report

Another study found that obese adults who worked out for four months and then took a month off lost most of the improvements to their aerobic capacity, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol.

The effects of a quarantine can be psychologically damaging in the long term.

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. Only two years ago e-cigarettes were viewed as holding great potential for public health: offering a way to wean smokers off traditional cigarettes. But now Juul and other vaping companies face an escalating backlash that threatens to sweep their products off the market. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

According to February research in the Lancet that included 24 previous studies on the psychological effects of quarantines during disease outbreaks, the experience can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, confusion, anger, fear, and substance misuse.

The most vulnerable people, the study authors said, are those who have or have had mental health issues. 

Of course, how severe the effects are depend on your situation, personality, and history.

reading book

How affected you are by a period of social isolation, or just reduced interactions, is also influenced by your personality. 

“If you’re a massive extrovert who thrives on social contact” the experience is going to hit harder “than if you’re an introvert who’s very comfortable curling up on a couch with a book,” psychologist Dr. Sherry Benton told Business Insider. 

To help ease stay-at-home restlessness, take a solo walk or run or try some at-home workout plans.

jump rope home exercise

As of March 22, most if not all US jurisdictions encourage residents who are healthy to get outside for the occassional walk or run. Just do so alone, don’t linger, and keep your distance from others. 

“If you can’t leave the house, find an exercise video online. Dance to music. Do some yoga, or walk up and down the stairs,” the World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a press briefing Friday

All you really need is your body to do pushups, squats, lunges, crunches, and burpees. A chair too can serve as a bench for tricep dips. 

If you have a resistance band, you can work even more variety into your at-home exercise plan. Try squats or “fast feet” — squatting low and stepping quickly in place — with the band around your legs above your knees to create tension and build power.

Try to eat healthy to help fend off feeling too sluggish.

canned beans grocery store

Alyssa Pike, registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, previously told Insider you don’t have to rely on soup and saltines for weeks straight. 

Rather, stock up on canned and frozen vegetables, grains like rice and pasta, and try some uncomplicated but nutrient-rich recipes like pasta salads and vegetarian chilis. 

Make sure you have a can opener. 

Eating a healthy and nutritious diet, WHO’s director-general said, “helps your immune system to function properly.” He also recommended limiting alcohol and sugary drink consumption, and not smoking. 

To mentally and emotionally cope with a quarantine or reduced social contact, virtually reach out to others.

phone call

Being quarantined today is less socially straining than just a decade ago.

Tools like FaceTime and Skype “may help relieve some of those short-term unpleasant responses to help us still feel and maintain those connections without potentially putting ourselves at risk of being exposed to the virus,” Holt-Lunstad said. 

She recommended being proactive about reaching out to others and asking how they’re doing — you’ll boost your mental health as well as theirs, since they’ll at least experience the perception of support, which research shows can reduce stress

Holt-Lunstad added that the silver lining to something like a directive to stay home is the ability to slow down and connect with the people closest to us.

“When you’re having people still express love and support in a variety of ways, it can make those periods of relative confinement more bearable,” she said. 

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