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Your Brain on Lockdown – the Effects of Social Isolation

social isolation

photo by sarah kilian

by Andrea Blundell

Had grand plans for all you’d get done during lockdown? Only to find yourself underachieving and acting far from your typical self? Social isolation is at work on your mental health and the way your brain functions.

Social isolation and your brain

There actually isn’t a body of research on the sort of self-isolation that Covid-19 is seeing us go through. Psychologists have researched perceived isolation and loneliness [1], meaning people live alone or feel alone, not that they can’t see friends or family they want to see. And there is research on solitary confinement in prisons and isolated Polar research stations. But while pandemic lockdown is bad, it’s not quite that bad.

What we do know, however, is how the different factors of self isolation can affect our grey matter.

Stressed and lonely? 

Isolating alone, or with roommates or family members you aren’t tactile with? Hugging and physical interaction lead to bonding, which involves the release of oxytocin, the brain’s ‘happy hormone’. Even non-tactile positive social situations can give us some oxytocin.

A study published in ‘Biological Psychiatry’ found that oxytocin and social support together lead to lower cortisol levels, “as well as increased calmness and decreased anxiety during stress”. [2]

In other words, your new hug-free existence can be leaving you less able to cope. 

Flakey and spacey?

self isolationOxytocin also seems to decrease activity in the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that activates whenever there’s a perceived threat.

A study on the way we scan others’ faces for danger found that increasing oxytocin via a shot of nasal solution means less vigilance, or looking for danger. [3]

So a decrease in oxytocin might mean an increase in hypervigilance, also triggered by knowing there is pain ahead, or feeling trapped (check, and check).

Hypervigilance means always scanning for ‘dangers’, whether that is the next bad news headline or what the partner or family we are cooped up with think of us. And it means our brain is so preoccupied that trying to think clearly or get work done can be a challenge.  

Feeling trapped by others around you, not just lockdown?

About feeling trapped and the amygdala, that wee but important almond-shaped brain region that helps with emotional processing.

It’s been found that people getting too physically close to you can trigger the amygdala to decide there is a potential danger. So if your partner or family is suddenly making you feel suffocated? You could be in ‘stress mode’, meaning fuzzy thinking and exhaustion.

Having emotional outbursts?

Feel so suffocated you don’t feel just stressed, but panicked? If you trigger your fight, flight, or flee response, it involves a rush of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol that mean you can snap more easily.

And slouching on the couch eating ‘comfort food’ could actually be contributing.

Your vagus nerve, stretching right from your brain down to your abdomen, is involved with the stress response. And it can be irritated by gastrointestinal upset as well as poor posture.

Sleeping terribly? 

The unfortunate thing about Covid-19 is that we just don’t know enough about it, meaning we are living in the shadow of uncertainty.

And as a 2016 study by neuroscientists at University College London makes clear, this means our brain reacts with fear. Which means we go into loops of negative thinking, and things like our sleep suffers. [4]

Social isolation just leaving you… flat? Blah? 

Your brain might have interrupted dopamine cycles because your usual routine isn’t happening. Dopamine is your brain’s way of positive reinforcement each time you complete a step or goal.

For some of us, it can be our routine that gives us all these little success moments we thrive off. Got to work on time! Made a healthy lunch! Found a good outfit!

And now here we are, wearing the same track suit for the third day running, eating bags of crisps and rolling out of bed just in time for our first Zoom call.

Feeling downright sad?

The lack of or decreased physical movement that lockdown entails could be behind any low moods you are going through.

A cross-study over almost three thousand adults [5] found that we are less likely to be depressed if we participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity. This is particularly true if we are overweight. This link between low physical activity and depression was confirmed by later research using statistics from Health Survey for England. [6]

TIP: As well as pushing yourself to do some sort of exercise, consider doing short bouts of movement. Breaking up sitting time in intervals with light intensity activity is found to improve anti-anti-inflammatory and anti oxidative responses. In other words, it helps your immune system.

Spending all your time in front of a screen?

If you are sitting in front of a screen all day working, and then spending all your down time also watching TV and films as you can’t go out? Note it might be contributing to any low moods you are experiencing.

A Scottish study looked at the lifestyles of almost four thousand men and women and found sedentary behaviour and screen time as leisure time was associated with poorer mental health scores. [7]

And do connect

If you are feeling terribly lonely, do try to find someone you can properly connect with Even if that just means booking a Skype therapy session.

 A 2015 study out of the University of California looked at white blood cells, known for their important role in the immune system’s response to infections. It  found that in both humans and rhesus monkeys, loneliness meant an increase in genes involved in inflammation, and a decrease in expression of genes connected to antiviral responses. [8]

Can’t get back to feeling good in lockdown? See it as the perfect time to start talk therapy. Our renowned London-based therapists are now available by video conferencing. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide affordable Skype therapy now. 


Want to share your top tip for navigating social isolation with other readers? Use the comment box below. 

Andrea BlundellAndrea Blundell is the editor and lead writer of this site. 






[1]Tanskanen J, Anttila T. A Prospective Study of Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Mortality in Finland. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(11):2042–2048. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2016.303431.

[2]Markus Heinrichs, Thomas Baumgartner, Clemens Kirschbaum, Ulrike Ehlert,
Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress,Biological Psychiatry,Volume 54, Issue 12,2003,Pages 1389-1398.
ISSN 0006-3223,

[3]Kanat, M., Heinrichs, M., Mader, I. et al. Oxytocin Modulates Amygdala Reactivity to Masked Fearful Eyes. Neuropsychopharmacol 40, 2632–2638 (2015).

[4] de Berker, A., Rutledge, R., Mathys, C. et al. Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nat Commun 7, 10996 (2016).

[5] Jeff K. Vallance, Elisabeth A.H. Winkler, Paul A. Gardiner, Genevieve N. Healy, Brigid M. Lynch, Neville Owen, Associations of objectively-assessed physical activity and sedentary time with depression: NHANES (2005–2006), Preventive Medicine,
Volume 53, Issues 4–5, 2011, Pages 284-288, ISSN 0091-7435,

[6]Hamer MCoombs NStamatakis E. Associations between objectively assessed and self-reported sedentary time with mental health in adults: an analysis of data from the Health Survey for England.

[7] Television- and Screen-Based Activity and Mental Well-Being in Adults Hamer, Mark et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 38, Issue 4, 375 – 380.

[8] Myeloid differentiation in social isolation. Steven W. ColeJohn P. CapitanioKatie ChunJesusa M. G. ArevaloJeffrey MaJohn T. Cacioppo
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