A tiny studio apartment in the city centre of Birmingham was Katie’s universe for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. With little greenery outside her windows, no family in the UK and almost all social interaction limited to phone calls and delivery drivers, anxiety quickly festered.
The uncertain months of isolation experienced by the 33-year-old university lecturer – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – created fertile ground for catastrophic thoughts, particularly those around her health. With no one near to keep her distorted thinking in check, things began to spiral, and she was diagnosed with depressive anxiety, something she puts down to constantly being alone. “It’ll be a long haul,” she says. “I’m doing OK, but I’m still very much in therapy.” Scientists have described the
Katie was not alone in being alone. pandemic as “the largest isolation study in history”. Based on reported cases of COVID-19, it is likely that upwards of 16 million people in the UK have experienced self-isolation since March 2020. During one week in January 2022, one in ten adults in Britain reported that they were in self-isolation. Then there are the more than 2.2 million clinically vulnerable people who were advised to shield for months from mid-2020.
Self-isolation – which can require spending up to 10 days without any in-person social contact or time outside – has been a necessary element of the public health response to COVID-19 to control the spread of the virus, but the impact on our mental and physical health is yet to be fully observed. Scientists have gone so far as to study data from astronaut missions to find relevant parallels about the possible consequences. A previous study into the effects of isolation on workers at polar research stations found that 60 percent of subjects reported depression, irritability and sleep disruption.
Sarita Robinson, the deputy head of the School for Psychology and Computer Science at the University of Central Lancashire and a neuroimmunology researcher, agrees there could be parallels between the isolation felt by overwintering crews in the poles and people in their homes during the pandemic. “What we find with people who are overwintering is that they tend to lose routine, become slightly depressed, maybe not at a clinical level, but there’s definitely that downgrading of emotions, and feeling like they have no energy,” she says.
The difference between polar researchers and the globe’s population in the last two years, however, is that they underwent years of training and preparation. We had no warning that a pandemic would soon be upon us.
One early study on the effects of social isolation during the pandemic has already found significant negative consequences. “We are a social species, so we’re designed to interact socially,” says Ruta Clair, an assistant professor of psychology at Cabrini University and a co-author of the study. “We have brain pathways and mirror neurons and other neurological components that are associated with our interaction.
“Part of our stress response is seeking social support, and when you can’t have that social support, it is going to make your ability to self-regulate much more difficult.” Clair points to “sky-high” levels of anxiety and depression, rates of which have almost doubled since the pandemic began, with one in six adults across Britain experiencing some form of depression in the summer of 2021.
The impact of isolation can also be seen in our bodies in the form of increased inflammation, which is linked to poor health and conditions such as dementia and cardiovascular disease. Robinson describes how social isolation, which is a chronic long-term stressor, is associated with a complete downgrading of the immune system.
For Katie, one of the physiological repercussions of being alone could be seen in her hairbrush. “My hair started to fall out really badly,” she says. “It started about three months into lockdown. I made a Zoom appointment with a trichologist, and she said it was exactly the timeline you’d expect for stress-related hair loss. She said she had a lot of people coming to her two to three months into lockdown with the same thing.”
While some of the effects of isolation are likely to be shared with people across Britain, Robinson is keen to highlight that the pandemic experience has been far from the same for everybody and that this could influence individual outcomes. “You could be self-isolating in a four-bedroom detached house with a garden or a tiny one-bedroom flat at the top of a skyscraper,” she says. “The environmental experience would be very different and would impact differently on your health status.”
Equally, people can feel isolated even when surrounded by others, Robinson says. This was the case for Lauren Corelli, 27, when she developed long COVID and suffered a minor stroke, rendering her unable to work, stand, read or speak. “The isolation came for me when I was feeling sick and surrounded by people who don’t understand,” she says. The result was deteriorating mental health that led to bouts of suicidal ideation.
The feeling of being forced into isolation against your will or when surrounded by other people is an experience that has been shared with certain sections of society, including disabled, sick and vulnerable people, both now and pre-pandemic. “Mentally, it’s hard,” Corelli explains. “You see the world continuing to move past without you, unable to engage in it because it’s not safe. We’re now at the point in the pandemic where people’s stamina for virtual events has evaporated. A lot of people want to return to a ‘normal’ that isn’t possible for so many. It’s just intensely isolating.”
The impact of an event as colossal as the pandemic and the resulting isolation does have a flip side, though. Humans are incredibly robust, Robinson says. “There’s this idea that trauma will lead to major physical and mental impact and, for most people, that is just not true,” she explains. “You tend to find up to 90% will come through any traumatic event. It will leave a footprint on their soul, but they’ll be able to cope, rationalise, readapt and show resilience.”
Robinson is clear that there is no place for diminishing the impact of isolation during the pandemic but encourages a move away from the blinkered view that a terrible thing has happened, so there must be terrible consequences. “Positive psychology suggests that actually you can have things like post-traumatic growth when people emerge and say that things are better than before,” she says.
John Junior, 33, experienced that kind of transformation when they faced isolation during the pandemic, but not before sinking to the deepest depths of mental ill-health. They felt utterly alone and planned to take their own life in June 2020, but a breakthrough came; they changed their mind and decided they wanted to live.
“It’s changed me for the better. I’ve not been depressed or suicidal, I feel amazing,” says Junior, who is now a mental health activist. “I find more things to do now, not just watching TV and stuff. I’m going out in the garden with my dog, I’m reading – I’ve never read books in my life – I’m doing things I’d never normally do, and I actually like it, I prefer it.”
As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s important to remember that just as being plunged into isolation was a shock, coming out again could feel equally jarring. Robinson warns against false optimism and says it’s essential to set realistic expectations. We need to give ourselves time and have patience, especially when we don’t yet know the magnitude of the bumps in the road ahead.