• Social distancing measures have quickly become essential to slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • As the pandemic has continued for over 12 months, these precautions have now become second nature to people around the world.
  • Unfortunately, the increase in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety has been a by-product of these measures.
  • Resocialization has been reported to reduce these issues and teaching us how to do this after the pandemic is crucial.

With COVID-19 vaccines work and restrictions lifted across the country, it’s finally time for those now vaccinated and squatting at home to ditch the sweatpants and reappear from their Netflix caves. But your brain might not be so eager to get back to your old social life.

Social distancing measures have proven key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 around the world – prevent more than 500 million cases. But, although necessary, 15 months apart from each other has taken its toll on people’s mental health.

In one national survey Last fall, 36% of adults in the United States – including 61% of young adults – reported feeling “severe loneliness” during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest that people would be eager to step onto the social scene.

But if the thought of chatting at a crowded happy hour sounds terrifying to you, you’re not alone. Almost half of Americans say they feel uncomfortable on returning to face-to-face interaction, regardless of vaccination status.

So how can people be so lonely and nervous about filling out their social calendars?

Well, the brain is remarkably adaptable. And while we may not know exactly what our brains have been going through in the past year, neuroscientists like me get a feel for how social isolation and resocialization affects the brain.

Social homeostasis – the need to socialize

Humans have an evolving need to socialize – although they may not perceive it to be so when deciding between an invitation to dinner and seeing “Schitt’s Creek” again.

From insects to primates, maintaining social networks is critical for survival in the animal kingdom. Social groups provide mating prospects, cooperative hunting, and protection from predators.

But social homeostasis – the right balance of social ties – must be respected. Small social networks cannot deliver these benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and partners. Because of this, the human brain has developed specialized circuitry to assess our relationships and make the correct adjustments, much like a social thermostat.

Social homeostasis involves many areas of the brain, and in the center is the mesocorticolimbic circuit – or “reward system”. That same circuit motivates you to eat chocolate when you crave something sweet or swipe up on Tinder when you feel like… well, you get it.

And like these motivations, a recent study found that reducing social interactions causes social cravings – produce patterns of brain activity similar to starvation.

So if people are hungry for social connection like they are hungry for food, what happens to the brain when you are socially hungry?

Your brain on social isolation

Scientists cannot push people into isolation and look inside their brains. Instead, the researchers are relying on laboratory animals to learn more about the social wiring of the brain. Fortunately, because social ties are indispensable in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are found through species.

One important effect of social isolation is, you guessed it, increased anxiety and stress.

Many studies show that removing animals from their cage mates increases anxiety behaviors and cortisol, the main stress hormone. Human studies also support this, as people with small social circles have higher cortisol levels and other anxiety-related symptoms similar to socially disadvantaged laboratory animals.

Evolutionarily, this effect makes sense: animals that lose group protection must become hypervigilant fend for themselves. And that doesn’t just happen in nature. One study found that the self-described “single people are more vigilant in the face of social threats like rejection or exclusion.

Another important region for social homeostasis is the seahorse – the brain’s learning and memory center. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors – such as altruism and cooperation – and recognize friends of enemies. But your brain stores huge amounts of information and has to remove unimportant connections. So like most of your high school Spanish, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Several animal studies show that even temporary isolation in adulthood impairs both social memory – like recognizing a familiar face – and working memory – like recalling a recipe during cooking.

And isolated humans can be just as forgetful. The Antarctic expeditionaries had shrunken seahorses after only 14 months of social isolation. Likewise, adults with small social circles are more likely to develop memory loss and cognitive decline later in life.

Thus, human beings might no longer wander in nature, but social homeostasis is still essential for survival. Fortunately, as adaptable as the brain is in isolation, so may be with resocialization.

Your brain on social reconnection

Although few studies have explored the reversibility of anxiety and stress related to isolation, they suggest that resocialization repairs these effects.

One study, for example, found that once isolated marmosets first had higher stress and cortisol levels during resocialization but then quickly recovered. Adorable, the once isolated animals even spent more time grooming their new mates.

Social memory and cognitive function also appear to be highly adaptable.

Mouse and rat studies report that if animals cannot recognize a familiar friend immediately after short-term isolation, they quickly regain their memory after re-socializing.

And there may also be hope for those emerging from a socially distant lockdown. A recent Scottish study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that residents had some cognitive decline during the toughest lockdown weeks but recovered quickly once restrictions were relaxed.

Unfortunately, such studies are still rare. And while animal research is informative, it probably represents extreme scenarios since people weren’t totally isolated over the past year. Unlike mice stuck in cages, many in the United States have hosted virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (we’re in luck).

So get through the nervous elevator talks and pesky brain fog, because “non-social distancing” should reset your social homeostasis very soon.

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