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Combating The Repercussions Of Social Isolation

I trudged on happily towards my dorm, incredulous of the fact that I was, at long last, done with this semester. However, the happiness derived from the fruits of my labour lasted for only a few hours and was slowly and steadily being replaced with an overwhelming dread for the next semester.

'You can get a head start on your studies for the next semester.'

You have just two more weeks before uni starts again and it'll be hard to catch up if you don't do some preparation in advance.'

'You're wasting time just lying in bed! Do something!'

Although normally, I was able to escape these feelings of anxiety by hanging out with friends or sauntering through the gorgeous streets of Prague, the lockdown meant that I was forced to confront these relentless thoughts among many others every single day. The impact social isolation has had on our day to day lives is quite significant and to balance our mental struggles with the myriad of challenges that medical school presents us with is a Herculean task. Research has shown that chronic social isolation increases the risk of issues related to mental health like depression, anxiety and substance abuse, as well as conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. In addition to this, the likelihood to develop diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia rises too.

Moreover, studies conducted on animals as well as people experiencing isolation have allowed researchers to identify several brain structures that appear to be affected by a lack of social interaction. Although these studies can’t identify causal relationships, they do shine a light on some of the mechanisms by which physical isolation, or feelings of loneliness, could impair brain function and cognition. For example, it has been found that the volumes of different structures of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampi and amygdala are either reduced or can even show dysregulated signalling in isolated individuals.

Indeed, the relationship between isolation and cognitive health isn’t entirely clear-cut but the need to combat such possible effects is becoming more apparent as a result of the current pandemic. Here are a few things that can help us limit the potentially damaging effects of prolonged isolation.

  1. Exercise

Not only does staying physically active boost your mood and improve sleeping patterns, but it also plays an important part in strengthening the immune system, something that is particularly important at this time.

  1. Go outdoors

Whether it is walking around the block a few times, walking your dog, hanging out on your balcony or porch, or just cracking open a window, being outdoors or letting the outdoors in can help you feel less claustrophobic and more connected to your surroundings. If you can't go outside, open your blinds or curtains during the day to let the daylight in. Spend some time sitting in front of a window so you aren't always focused on the interior of your room. Even a brief change of scenery can prove to be quite effective in refreshing your mind.

  1. Continue to commemorate special occasions

Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or other happy milestones is life-affirming and mood-boosting. Continue to carve out time to enjoy special moments. Try preparing something yourself — a recipe you’ve always wanted to try or your favourite dish.

  1. 'See' your loved ones

From virtual hangouts and meetings to Skype and Facetime, there are many ways to incorporate visuals into your communications. Actually seeing the faces of family, friends and co-workers can help you feel more connected than just hearing their voices on voice call.

  1. Practising mindfulness

If feelings of loneliness, anxiety or hopelessness become overwhelming and you don’t have access to the people or activities that typically enable you to cope, mindfulness can help. Try to avoid going down a path of ‘what ifs’. The key is to balance the emotions you are experiencing at the moment rather than going down the potentially fraught spiral of worrying about the future. See if there’s something you can do to restore your emotional balance, which can include something as simple as taking deep breaths, taking a bath or making yourself a fragrant cup of tea or coffee.

  1. If you are struggling, talk to a mental health professional.

It can be difficult to cope with your feelings on your own. Reach out to a therapist — whether you already have one or not — as soon as possible. Moreover, support groups, a helpline as well as online discussion groups can assist you in connecting to mental health resources.

Looking out for and connecting with others along with taking good care of ourselves should be among our top priorities during these unprecedented times. I would like to end on a hopeful note by quoting a few lines from one of my favourite poems, ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, which is essentially a culmination of various conditions one must fulfil, according to Kipling, in order to attain all that this world has to offer,

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Fatima is a 2nd-year Medical Student at Charles 1st Faculty with a keen interest in Neurosurgery and Cardiothoracic surgery. She is also currently part of the team translating WikiScripta pages into English so that they're more accessible to students of the English Parallel.

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