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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

What Happens to Our Social Brain When We Are Social Distancing?

Our brains are hardwired to connect with other people. This all started with our prehistoric ancestors who gathered together in the face of danger. Their survival technique of being in groups has been passed all the way to us. Social distancing in the era of coronavirus is completely contrary to our need to be together. The mandates from our government to self-isolate and follow social distancing guidelines are contradictory to our social instinct. What can we do?

In pre-pandemic days our need for social media and the internet were thought to be isolating. Now it seems, this is how we will survive social distancing. They provide a means of connection with others even though it doesn’t satisfy our need for physical closeness. Free access to the internet can make a positive contribution to public health.

Humans Need Each Other to Survive

Connecting is essential to what makes us human. As this crisis goes on, we begin to wonder – how much longer can we make it? Distress starts to settle in. The magnitude of what we are dealing with now and the changes the future may bring can be overwhelming. Julianna Holt-Lunstad, an expert on the psychology of human connection at Brigham Young University says that “distress over social distancing is normal. It is our body signaling a need to reconnect. Just like hunger signals us to eat, and thirst signals us to drink water, loneliness is thought to be a biological drive that motivates us to reconnect.”

Social Distancing as Part of Our Ordinary Social Life

You might just feel as if you are losing an important source of emotional comfort. Your physical contact with people you love but can’t touch is replaced by virtual hugs exchanged over FaceTime of Zoom. I have a new granddaughter who is now just 5 months old. Since I was able to see her last she has learned to roll over, sit up and splash in the bath. My son and daughter-in-law are very good about sending photos and videos of all her triumphs. But I am sad because I can’t be there to see it for myself. These events come and go and the excitement of the ‘first time’ is gone.

The inability to touch another person is distressing. A good hug solves many problems and helps temper emotions. It can give us a sense of security and that everything will be okay. Handshakes communicated sincerity, and self-assurance. It doesn’t look like those will be happening in the near future.

To sum up the area of research on whether virtual hugs can give you comfort, the findings suggest that, as the new rules of social interaction become part of your reality, your brain will provide you with some form of consolation. Your brain will adapt and take this new reality in stride.

Social Isolation Is a Major Risk for Morbidity and Mortality

This is pretty blunt: “When leaders recommend ‘social distancing’ to combat a pandemic such as COVID-19 they are starting another one: loneliness. Thus, if we don’t die from the virus, we die from loneliness.” (Azab, M. Psychology Today, March 21, 2020)

Social isolation and loneliness are deadly. They can put you at a higher risk of a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a compromised immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, and even premature death.

Social isolation severely interferes with the neuroendocrine stress mechanisms – the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA for short). The HPA operates the chronic stress cycle. The more chronic the isolation, the more our HPA becomes dysfunctional. The more affected the HPA axis is, the higher our risks for physical and mental illnesses.

Social Engagement Is Desperately Needed During a Pandemic

What??? And How???

We have to use the technology we have to stay connected. Here are some suggestions:

· Connect more intimately with the people who live with you.

· Stop texting (!) and FaceTime instead.

· Join an online book club.

· Plan a small online party using applications such as Zoom.

· If you are an introvert, then enjoy the permission to be alone.

· If you are an extrovert, this allows you to pause and spend some time to learn about yourself.

· Shift your old mindset from doing to being.

· Critically reflect on your routine before this pandemic. Think out loud with a trusted person.

(Azab,M. Neuroscience in Everyday Life)


Azab,M. (March 21, 2020). Can social brains obey social distancing? Retrieved April 29, 2020 from

Inverso,E. (March 28, 2020). Connection, belonging, and purpose in the world of social distancing. Retrieved April 29, 2020 from

Welch,C. (April 15, 2020). Are we coping with social distancing? Psychologists are watching warily. Retreived from

Whitbourne,S.K. (April 14, 2020). This is your brain on social distancing. Retrieved April 29, 2020 from

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