As we grapple with the changes that social distancing and self-isolation have brought to our lives, our experiences begin to align with those of NASA astronauts and Antarctic scientists who live and work in isolation. As we bake, knit, read and contemplate what life will be like when the threat of coronavirus has subsided, our brains are changing.
Associate Professor Kimberley Norris from the University of Tasmania is a clinical psychologist who studies how people respond to extreme and unusual situations like isolation. Kim’s research into how people cope in environments such as Antarctica and Outer Space can provide insights into how our minds are changed by periods with minimal social interaction.
It’s a rollercoaster
Isolation for very short periods of time (less than a few weeks) results in small, and often temporary, mental changes as we essentially give ourselves permission to ‘ride it out’ without making major adjustments. Once isolation has continued beyond a few weeks we start to see some changes in people’s psychology, how we emotionally respond to situations or how resilient we could be to change.
People experience similar patterns of mood fluctuations when isolated for longer periods. Initial excitement subsides causing our mood to stabilise or ‘plateau’, followed by declines in mood and wellbeing. After several weeks, challenges become harder to navigate as we feel like we’ve been dealing with isolation for so long but have to keep going. This is especially difficult when there is no clear end in sight, or if the end date keeps changing. Generally, humans are creatures of community and habit. People like having control and predictability in their lives, it provides comfort and the ability to plan and of course much needed time for fun and leisure!
Kim highlights that “alongside the rollercoaster of emotions brought on by isolation, we can struggle to think, concentrate and remember as well as we would in ‘normal’ circumstances”. This is due to an increase in the number of thoughts our brains have to process (known as “cognitive load”). These thoughts include responding to our new routine and our changed environment. Each day we are receiving more information about the pandemic or adjusting to updated restrictions – that’s a lot to mentally process! As a result, our attention, concentration, memory and problem-solving abilities decrease. This is often temporary and returns to normal within a few months post isolation.
Men and Women may respond differently
Following periods of prolonged isolation, we see changes in the way that men and women respond and engage with the world around them.
“People who identify as male are generally quite independent, strong in their beliefs to cope with most things and they tend to be quite self-sufficient, they keep their challenges to themselves” Kim says.
However, during isolation when your survival can depend on the people around you, males reach out to their immediate network or community for support to work through the challenges of isolation. Men expanding their social networks and reaching out for support during isolation may have many positive mental health benefits that last well beyond isolation. According to Kim, “generally speaking, males who have been in isolation will come back with much stronger social networks and a better ability to reach out to other for help when they need it”
In contrast, women stereotypically already use social support to a much greater extent than men as part of routine life. Kim says,
“They (Women), instead become much more confident in their own abilities”
So, in isolation, many women may be relying more on their own skills and therefore working more independently. As a result of the greater self-confidence and trust in their abilities, women have been shown to be more likely to pursue career changes and opportunities for advancement after periods of isolation.
However, this is a simplification and of course it is often much more complex than this. For example, recent research has shown that the increased caring load during the Covid-19 crisis is bourne largely by women and that women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce (1,2). An increased domestic and caring load and the high proportion of women in healthcare professions may mean that the traditionally cited benefits of isolation may not be felt by many women.
Whether or not we are isolated by choice influences how we cope
There are many situations where people choose to be isolated (known as self-selection), for example people working on remote islands manning lighthouses, in space or in Antarctica. In these situations, people typically receive training to prepare for isolation, which equips them with skills to adjust to isolation. Kim says that this preparation “facilitates better adaptation as it allows the world to feel more predictable, enabling us to feel more in control, and less anxious”.
In contrast, when isolation is thrust upon us, such as isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not had a choice to isolate, time to prepare or access to specialist training. The environment and available information are also rapidly changing, so the world can seem much less predictable than before. As we were unable to prepare for isolation, a lot more mental energy is needed to navigate the changing world around us. While this doesn’t mean that we can’t do well without preparation, it makes it a more challenging journey.
As coronavirus restrictions start to ease and we start to return to work and re-enter public spaces, what can we expect?
Every day life will be different
“Life will not simply pick up where we left off. Too much has changed – we have changed as individuals, as well as a society.” Kim says.
We’ve developed new routines and expectations, and we need to create a new normal. Several factors are likely to contribute to nerves about restrictions relaxing and people will vary in how they respond. Generally, people will be fearful of the ongoing risk of transmission of COVID-19, apprehensive about resuming work or sending the kids back to school, and nervous about mixing in large groups again as we’re out of practice! We’re also likely to experience sensory overload as more people are out in public and activities resume – we’ll be exposed to more and louder noise, smells and sights. However, when we establish our new normal, our anxieties will be eased and we will find ourselves developing new habits that help us to navigate our world.
You may be excited for the return to a life with social gatherings and international travel, or you may be apprehensive about re-entering a changed world, having enjoyed the benefits of social distancing.
Whether you’re excited, anxious or a little bit of both, Kim has some tips to ease your transition from self-isolation and social distancing back to everyday life.
Three easy steps
- Protect the good things that isolation has given you
There may be some things about isolation that you like – reduced time pressures, a new hobby, more time with the kids, or improved balance between different aspects of your life. Part of successful adaptation and ‘thriving’ post isolation is making time to continue doing things you enjoyed during isolation. Not only will this help you to find a sense of meaning and purpose in your isolation experience, but more importantly, these type of self-care activities decrease the impacts of sensory and mental overload and help you adapt more effectively.
- Make it a staged transition
Just because you can do things again, doesn’t mean you have to, and doesn’t mean you have to do it all at once. Give yourself permission to take your time to make the transition – known as ‘systematic desensitisation’, or ‘graded exposure’. Some days you will feel up to the challenge, other days not so much. Be kind to yourself. Be patient. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you. Create opportunities to do things, but without high levels of pressure.
- For Now
Physical distancing combined with social connection leads to good mental health. Stay connected with your family, friends and colleagues via one of the many platforms we have available to us like zoom, skype and phone calls. Don’t wait for it to all be over, take up hobbies, focus on activities which give you a sense of achievement. Choose small tasks remembering to be gentle with your brain, which is working overtime.
Unlike the elite researchers that Kim has worked with, our isolation has been thrust upon us. It’s understandable that we may be feeling anxious. Be kind to yourself and remember that like explorers of Antarctica and space we’re navigating unchartered territory, in our kitchens, homes and brains.
If you or someone you know is struggling please call life line on 13 11 14 or access the websites below for helpful information and resources:
Beyond Blue: http://www.beyondblue.org.au
Reach Out: reachout.com
This article was written by Kate Johnson, Niamh Chapman and expert guest Associate Professor Kimberley Norris.
Kimberley Norris is a psychological scientist and clinical psychologist who works across academic, research, and clinical psychology practice settings. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Tasmania. Her overarching research and academic interests are focused on adaptation and resilience, and maximising human health, wellbeing and performance in both normal (e.g. academic) and extreme environments (e.g. Antarctica, space, FIFO).
(1) Workplace gender equality Agency (2020) Gendered impact of Covid-19, viewed 30 May 2020, available: https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/gendered-impact-of-covid-19.
(2) Boniol, M, McIsaac, M, Xu, L, Wuliji, T, Diallo, K & Campbell, J (2019), Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 countries, World Health Organisation, viewed 30 May 2020, available: https://www.who.int/hrh/resources/gender_equity-health_workforce_analysis/en/.
Image 1: Aurora Australis and Image 3: In The Ice, credit : Kimberley Norris