Chronic Stress and Isolation: How it Impacts Our Brain

Lauren Monahan 21 and Camden Chin 22

Lauren Monahan ’21 and Camden Chin ’22

Steph Hanchak

Separation from friends, family members, classmates, and even acquaintances as a result of the pandemic has created a global issue that can be detrimental in its own right: social isolation. This isolation stems from a variety of mitigation strategies, including stay-at-home orders, school closures, and lack of physical contact due to social distancing measures. Some have even called this mental health crisis a “second pandemic.” It is now more than a year since the first COVID-19 case in the US was reported, and this prolonged period of isolation has resulted in many people having symptoms of chronic stress.

At Westtown, students are still reflecting on how pandemic-related stress has impacted their lives. “It’s interesting because I don’t think I’ve processed it all,” says Lauren Monahan ‘21. “We all went through such isolation and such disruption in our lives, like we just lost half of our senior year.”

Scientists at Montreal’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) have found that chronic stress impacts the human brain in a variety of ways, from increasing susceptibility to depression and anxiety to impacting parts of the brain involved in attention, memory, and emotion processing. The social isolation that has resulted from our attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19 has contributed to this stress. As inherently social creatures, humans are not meant to experience long-term isolation, which can add to the strains already associated with the pandemic and disrupt our “biopsychological balance,” according to researchers Giada Pietrabissa and Susan G. Simpson, who have written about the psychological impact of pandemic-related isolation. Camden Chin ‘22 can relate to this feeling of disruption.

“I remember going on runs and just having the days blend together and really missing school,” Chin says. “When they were like, ‘Do you want to come back to Westtown, I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ I would rather go to the bathroom and take a shower in a mask than just be alone.”

The chronic stress associated with isolation especially impacts the mental and physical health of young people, whose brains are still developing. Additionally, people who are exposed to chronic stress at a young age are more likely to experience this same type of stress later in life, according to CSHS researchers. They believe this underscores the importance of addressing and managing the stress response in vulnerable people in order to prevent negative long-term consequences.

Prolonged periods of stress affect multiple parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and frontal cortex, which are important centers for emotion regulation, learning, memory, sleep, nutrition, and more. Studies have shown that this impact may be related to repeated exposure to stress hormones (glucocorticoids), which have receptors in these three brain regions, according to CSHS researchers. While these stress hormones play an essential role in metabolism and development, as well as inflammation and stress response, chronic exposure to high levels of these hormones can have a neurotoxic effect, meaning they can disrupt or damage nerve cells. The disruption of normal emotional pathways in the brain can lead to depression.

According to Pietrabissa and Simpson, the persistence of social isolation can result in “interpersonal disconnection” and loneliness, which is linked to depression as well as lowered immunity and increased levels of cortisol, known as one of the main stress hormones. They note that our ability to be resilient is directly related to “the depth and strength of our interpersonal connections,” while loneliness presents a real threat to our physical and emotional health. Students who have endured more than a year of disrupted relationships with friends, classmates, and teachers understand this disconnected feeling.

“Living in isolation was really, really hard, especially for me because I am an extrovert and I like to be around people, so just being on my own for just weeks on end was truly terrible,” says Chin.

Prolonged isolation is known to have wide-ranging impacts on our physiological and behavioral health. Researchers focusing on the molecular mechanisms behind these changes have cited high blood pressure, decreased immune response, higher risk for cardiovascular issues, more vulnerability for motor decline, and impaired memory and cognition. Additionally, the pandemic has led many people to live more sedentary lifestyles, which have been found to increase both fibrinogen and C-reactive protein levels, which both play a role in increasing inflammation.

It is especially important to examine isolation during a global health pandemic because of the long-term consequences of isolation versus socialization. According to Pietrabissa and Simpson, as the pandemic has dragged on, people have begun to view contact with others as “potentially dangerous” and have begun to choose to isolate or avoid social situations out of fear and uncertainty. This has had an interesting impact on our mindset and decision making, as well as our ability to return to “normal” life.

Monahan described coming back to school in person as initially “terrifying.” She says, “I think being in the same space for so long was kind of detrimental, too, because it made me not want to leave my house ever. Moving in was a little stressful just because I was so used to this one room or these few rooms for like a year.”

Pietrabissa and Simpson report that new behaviors resulting from the pandemic could ultimately affect our relationships with others, change our worldview, and create division. They note that certain leadership styles can magnify this “fragmentation” by contributing to divides within society as well as xenophobia.

Talking with friends and family may be essential to maintaining social connections and our mental health, but physical touch, and even just physical proximity, is also an important factor that is often overlooked. Physical contact acts as a buffer against psychological stress and is especially crucial for infants and young children in the process of developing, according to researchers reviewing how touch impacts growth and development. T. Maria agrees. She explained that touch is a sensory experience that we frequently take for granted, and having to be six feet apart is “contrary to how we are wired.”

“We are creatures of attachment,” she explains. “We are born with a belly button and connected. That’s not just an accident. It’s a part of how we are built around connection—you know, touch is something that we’ve been sensory deprived in that way.” T. Maria adds that the masks we are required to wear during the pandemic add to this disruption.

“I also think in terms of facial pieces—you know, having half of our faces just covered—again, it’s just really hard because we are creatures who depend on reading social cues.”

Reflecting on the stress of the pandemic and our neurochemistry, T. Maria notes the importance of time in the healing process.

“You know, we think ‘Everybody’s back at school, things are normal,’ but they’re not. Your brain, body, and nervous system have been under attack for almost a year, and that takes time [to recuperate]. There needs to be a period of recovery and healing, and I can’t say that enough. I love school, but I can’t wait for you guys to rest.”