The COVID-19 pandemic is taking an immeasurable toll on the world, forcing millions of people to adopt a strange and solitary new way of life. There are only grim estimates of how long this period of self-isolation will last.
In New York City, where I live, public schools are closed until at least April 20, with many speculating that it will extend through the remainder of the school year. The Metropolitan Museum announced that it will be closed until July. Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the peak of infection will hit in roughly 45 days. “April is going to be worse than March,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “And I fear May will be worse than April.” A recent federal plan forecasts that the pandemic will stretch on for the next 18 months or longer.
Less than a week into my own self-isolation, my Brooklyn apartment—which had previously given me such pleasure—began to feel like a prison. Suddenly, I was under house arrest and the sentence was indefinite. I was safe, sure, but I was also deeply, profoundly alone. My mind started reeling: Am I really not going to see my family or friends for over a year? Will I ever see them again?
I began to feel symptomatic. My throat felt tight and scratchy. I couldn’t breathe. Was I sick? As it turned out, I was not experiencing symptoms of coronavirus; my panicked downward spiral was, according to social neuroscientist Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a natural stress response triggered by my brain.
“The worst thing that we can do as humans is to imagine a future where we are alone,” she told me over the phone. Dr. Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, studies the effects of love and loneliness in the brain. She, along with her late husband Dr. John Cacioppo (who literally wrote the book on loneliness), has found that the physical state of being alone actually has very little to do with feeling lonely. Their research likens loneliness to a biological signal, much like thirst or hunger.
“Loneliness is not a pathology,” Dr. Cacioppo said. “It’s just an external signal from our body that something is going wrong with our environment.”
Like hunger or thirst, if loneliness is left unresolved, it can have serious consequences—and the fix is far from straightforward. Just being with other people, she says, will not necessarily make you feel less alone. “If you put lonely people together, they’re going to hate each other after a few minutes,” she said.
This is because, ironically, loneliness can also make you deeply unfriendly. According to Dr. Cacioppo, sustained loneliness activates an avoidance mechanism in the brain, meaning that you are more likely to be skeptical and distrustful of others, which makes you withdraw even further. Loneliness doesn’t only play tricks on the mind, it can also take a serious toll on our physical health: even in a pandemic-free world, chronic loneliness increases the risk of an early death by 26 percent.
But how can one possibly ward off loneliness—and all its grave side effects—while in self-isolation? The key, according to Dr. Cacioppo, is to find new ways to regain control. “What we’ve found in research is that a sense of control is essential for one’s sanity,” she said. “But things with COVID-19 evolve so quickly; the guidelines we have today might not work next week … So we are really in a scary situation for our mind.”
The neurology behind our need for control is complicated, but regaining some agency over our lives, even under quarantine, is deceptively simple. “The first thing we need to do is to think about right now and not let our mind wander to the future,” she said. “Right now you can control your environment”—the food you decide to eat, the clothing you decide to wear (for Zoom or otherwise). “That gives you a sense of stability.”