What happens to your body after weeks isolated at home: what distancing, sedentary lifestyle and loneliness can do to us

The quarantine has long since ceased to be a novelty in our lives. In fact, we have probably already found a small routine between the walls of our house. As much as that this new routine is much more sedentary and solitary than it was our normal daily life. The question is whether this is a problem.

The matter is complex, of course. We do not know how long social distancing will last, or how long people will try to maintain their normal routines in a new environment or radically change them. However, studies on social isolation in small places and the experience of other quarantines allow us to get an idea of ​​the main challenges that these weeks are going to pose today.

"Social Animals"

Kelsey Chance

I am convinced that nine times out of ten that someone says we are 'social animals' does not fully understand the full implications of this idea. It is not simply that we like being with people, or that (unlike other animal species) we have a natural tendency to live in groups. Being "social animals" goes beyond preferences and customs: it has profound consequences on a physical and psychological level.

This is seen with special drama in the studies that have been done on grief for years. Compared to the famous Kübler-Ross five-phase model, the most modern studies have realized that the mourning process has approximately a linear oscillation behavior. Not only are there no "orders" in the occurrence of emotions, but their intensity varies greatly. If we represented it, in a graph we would have something very similar to this:

In other words, the last decades research is converging on a simple idea: that social relationships have a key role in the integral regulation of human beings and that when we run out of them, problems emerge relatively quickly, destabilizing us physically, psychologically and emotionally (as we see in the graph). Because yes, when we use the expression 'integral regulation', we are using it conscientiously.

Between 2007 and 2011, several space agencies carried out an isolation experiment with the idea of ​​verifying what effects an interplanetary trip could have on astronauts.It was called Mars500 and was trying to simulate a 520-day trip in space and conditions similar to those of a trip to Mars.

The experiment was carried out in different phases of 15, 100 and 520 days with young and well-prepared people. That is precisely what makes the conclusions more interesting. There, in isolation, participants began to experience sleep changes and malfunctions in the normal functioning of their immune, endocrine, cardiac, and cognitive systems. After a few months, his metabolisms had been affected. Being social animals has implications that go far beyond what we usually think.

Is this quarantine "homologable" to such experiments?

The word quarantine was first used in 1127 when leprosy reached Venice following trade routes to the East, and it did not take long for it to become a cross-cutting element in a Europe that was forced to seclude itself over and over again in the face of Plague. There are those who say that it was precisely the inability of those societies to fight the epidemic that drove the loss of prestige of the medieval that hatched in the Renaissance.

However, although not with the dimensions of this occasion, the quarantines have continued to be present in the world in recent times. In 2003, large areas of China and Canada had to impose quarantines during the SARS epidemic, and in 2014, many West African countries applied it to stem the Ebola outbreak. "Thanks" to this, we have some scientific evidence that allows us to understand the similarities and differences between this type of quarantine, experiments like Mars500 and even the "social isolation" that many people experience on a daily basis.

This evidence tells us that people in quarantine are "more prone to exhaustion, detachment from others, anxiety, anger, deterioration in job performance" and other types of indicators related to acute stress. But, in the same way, the studies find very significant differences around a series of factors such as the duration of the quarantine, fear, frustration or boredom, the lack of basic supplies or adequate information.

In this sense, the quarantines that are spreading throughout most of the world are not strictly comparable to experiments like the Mars500. At least, not for most of the population. On the other hand, it can generate very similar situations especially in people who (previously) already had a high risk of social isolation.

So can it become troublesome?

Noah Silliman

Yes, it can be, although we do not have to take it out of context. Harry Taylor said in Wired that "the mortality effect of social isolation is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day" and, although that estimate is perhaps somewhat inflated, the truth is that, from what we know of studies in "older people, isolation Social seems to exacerbate any pre-existing medical conditions, from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer's. " However, there are clear indications that lead us to extend this idea to all ages.

First, by direct mechanisms. There is some evidence to suggest that these types of situations increase the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, inflammation problems and sleep disorders. This has a psychological consequence (increases the risk of emotional disorders), but also a physical one (cardiovascular function is affected).

Secondly, because we stopped doing many things that we had integrated in our day. We exercise less, we take less sun, we have a less adequate diet, etc ... In some places it has been said that inactivity could atrophy your muscles or things like that. And it is true that sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of dying prematurely and that it is estimated that it causes more than three million premature deaths a year or that the back will suffer because confinement leads us to worse postural hygiene.

However, there does not appear to be strong evidence that a short period of confinement has overly harmful effects on healthy people. The problem is much more subtle and it is rooted in that, normally, we are not aware of our routines, habits and customs are not isolated things. On the contrary, they are intimately related to the rest of our life and help compensate and keep it (relatively) balanced.

When our life is interrupted

Marius Serban

Our daily practices form a whole that does not stop feeding itself at any time. Under normal conditions, our appetite (and what we eat) is related to the caloric expenditure that we do every day; what we sleep with the physical activity we do; Our little traditions (going for a walk, going out on the terrace, going out with the bike) are related to the need for sun, exercise or tranquility that normal life requires of us.

The quarantine breaks with all that so quickly that it does not allow us to adapt to the new situation: we are unbalanced. In some cases this decompensation is small and can be coped well (in the short time that the measurements are expected to last). At other times, it deepens nutritional or metabolic imbalances that we had been inadvertently dragging on for a long time.

What if I have a health problem or risk factor? Should I be worry? Throughout the article we stress the idea that we are talking about "normal conditions" because, in fact, and legally, people who have health problems or disorders of some kind can adapt the quarantine restrictions to their health with help from your doctor. Thus hospitals and health centers are facilitating authorizations to allow health problems not to worsen as an effect of isolation.

Be that as it may, what is clear is that social isolation increases it. According to current research, social contact reinforces healthy habits, allows access to better information, improves nutrition, promotes physical activity and even increases financial resources. Social distancing therefore tends to limit a wide range of resources that we would normally have at our disposal.

After quarantine

It is important to note that the consequences do not end with quarantine. In general, normality will not be what it was. The routines, practices, and habits that we maintained before have been affected and many of us may not recover them. That is why it is important not to lose sight of the fact that this imbalance that we were discussing has enough "weapons" to perpetuate itself over time.

Beyond that, on a strictly psychological level, post-quarantine is also poblematic. Financial problems and stigma have been seen as factors that trigger stress and psychological distress. In fact, after epidemics like SARS, the people who experienced it most closely (sick, family and health) were more likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress even three years later.

Therefore, we must not let our guard down and it is very important to try to build routines as healthy and complete as possible. So much so that, in many cases, this will lead us to have to find a new normality that will help us to move simply and quickly towards a new post-coronavirus balance.

Images | MARS500

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