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  • Writer's pictureSue Fitzmaurice

Isolation Sickness. It's a thing.

Isolation Sickness is a thing. I know because I have it.

There’s a lot of research on it, most of which has emerged from studying the elderly, and prisoners in solitary confinement. There’s now new stuff emerging because of covid isolation.

Prolonged social isolation has debilitating effects on mammals, resulting in depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, panic attacks, a lack of confidence, paranoia, an inability to think clearly, and aggression.[1],[2] I don’t have aggression. “These effects are seen when mice are subjected to two weeks of social isolation, but not to short-term social isolation (24 hours), suggesting that the observed changes in aggression and fear responses require chronic isolation.”[3] The effects on physical health outcomes, as well as mental health, are widely documented.

It actually causes a physiological response. Prolonged social isolation causes the build-up of a particular neuropeptide that binds to certain neurons creating a change in neural circuit function. The neuropeptides and neurons involved are located in the “amygdala and hypothalamus, which are involved in emotional and social behavior.”[4]

There’s a distinct difference drawn between social isolation and loneliness – they’re two different things. Of course they will frequently occur together and what they each feel like overlaps to a large extent. In my case, I can honestly say, I’m not lonely.

I arrived in Ireland at the end of February to house sit for friends who’re still in New Zealand – they were due back the end of April and their flights were cancelled. And then we were all in lockdown everywhere. Neither of us was particularly upset about it, being as we’re both in very beautiful parts of the world and quite safe. And as both my friends are in risk categories for the illness, they were reluctant to go through the long travel process – it’s a minimum of 24 hours travel to get there from here, and generally more. Besides, there were no flights. So I was totally happy to say ‘take as long as you need.’ It's beautiful here, I'm in a lovely house, it's warm, there's fast internet, a gorgeous garden, the sea is a few hundred metres away, I have an income, the bills are paid, there's food in the fridge, and there are lovely shops not far away. Absolutely nothing to complain about. And I haven't.

So I’ve been living alone here, with the ginger cat, who I now talk to quite a lot. I spend a lot of time on my own anyway – it’s how I’ve lived for several years and I’m very happy with my own company. But my normal ‘living alone’ is generally interspersed with adventure and connecting with other people, and I have multiple internet-based contacts with others throughout every day, some of them via video chat. And so isolation sickness crept up on me and I only noticed it for the first time at the beginning of June, and even then I wasn’t sure what it was.

I’ve in the countryside, in a small hamlet. I go out for a walk every day, and some days I will see no one, and some days I might see two or three people I can say hello to. Maybe once a week I stop for a few minutes socially-distanced conversation with someone I meet on a walk. Once every 7-14 days, I go to the supermarket, and then I get maybe half a minute of conversation with whoever’s on the checkout. I started going to both the supermarkets in the nearby town in order to have two half-minute conversations. One day I even went to the other town as well, so I had four half-minute conversations!

What I noticed first was that one day as I was preparing to go out to the town to do my grocery shopping, I suddenly felt anxious. And I thought to myself, well that’s interesting, I wonder what that’s about. And then I said to myself, oh stop it, don’t be ridiculous. (Not, I hasten to add, that I think it’s ridiculous to feel anxious – I just thought it was ridiculous for me to feel anxious because there was no apparent reason for it.) And I took a deep breath and forgot about it.

Another thing that happened was that certain micro-aggressions from others online, I felt very deeply. I was really stung by them. Not because of what those people said – I couldn’t care less about what they said – but I experienced an almost physiological reaction. It was an extreme sensitivity. I have since blocked one good friend for her repeat offending in this regard. Self-care.

Three weeks ago, the Irish government brought forward a planned lockdown easing by a few weeks and all of a sudden we were allowed to travel anywhere within our own county. Interestingly, I’ve not taken advantage of this three weeks on, but that’s by the by, and I'm already thinking about why that is. A friend that lives an hour away, who I’ve been wanting to catch up with, came across for a day and a night – we walked, we talked, we laughed our heads off, and it was grand. I felt restored. A couple of days before that, another friend had come for dinner. A couple of days later I met some locals on a walk and got invited to their Sunday morning table tennis get-together and brunch, and that’s been a lifesaver. So I had a week of wonderful, blissful social interaction. I was cured.

Ah, no.

A week later again, and there it all was: anxiety and depression, and actually, yeah, paranoia, lack of confidence, and an inability to think clearly. And on reflection, there’d been little bits of those for several weeks. ‘Cos it creeps up on you.

“Reconnecting with other humans can reduce loneliness and help restore us to good mental and physical health. However, some people who have been held in social isolation against their will may develop long-term mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”[5]

Literally the second another human being is physically in my space, all of that disappears. Which is not what happens with depression, so it’s not like a normal depression. I can take the edge off these symptoms by getting on a video chat with a friend. And thank god for those friends. But I can still feel the symptoms while I’m chatting to them. It literally takes for someone to be physically in my space for the symptoms to fade fully. And they will return the minute that person leaves.

I also take two classes a week online, ie. I’m the one delivering the class, and notwithstanding that I can start panicking about them a few hours beforehand (never happened before), once I’m there and those other faces are Zoom’ing back at me, the symptoms fade. Because I’m the one taking the class, it’s an intense period of concentration for me, so that other shit just isn’t there. There have been a couple of other Zoom gatherings I’ve participated in regularly or semi-regularly in recent weeks and I can have quite some panic beforehand, including lack of confidence and paranoia, and again those symptoms have faded somewhat for that time.

In addition, in recent years, because of the spiritual journey I’ve been on in particular, I’ve become more sensitive. It’s not a bad thing, but it does mean I feel things deep within my physiology that affect me in ways they wouldn’t have done a few years ago. So just the intensity of this worldwide pandemic and all the energy of that, is felt by the many, many people in the world with sensitive systems. Add the politics of bullshit worldwide, and then more recently the activity around #blacklivesmatter, and it’s a really intense time. So there’s that.

Those of you working in and around the spiritual and healing arenas will know that this has been an intense time for other reasons. There’ve been eclipses and planetary retrogrades left, right and bloody centre, and those are powerful influences on our emotional health and wellbeing. So there’s that.

Early on, when covid was just kicking off and was at its early peak, I felt the distance from my own country – New Zealand – and from my friends and family and children there. That passed. But there was that.

The abiding experience for me is a type of depression that I can physically feel as anxiety, lack of confidence and paranoia. The moment another human being is physically in my space, the feeling goes. And then I feel completely myself and normal.

I have a pretty healthy lifestyle – I brisk walk outdoors every day and occasionally climb mountains, I’m vegetarian, I barely drink alcohol, and I tend to avoid sugar and wheat as I’ve found over time that they’re pretty much like slow poisons in my body. I generally meditate twice a day. I have lots of amazing, powerful, deeply caring and loving friends. As with a lot of people I’m sure, if I’m feeling a bit low, I’ll grab some chocolate and a beer and take a pass on meditation. That’s happened a bit too often the last few weeks. So I’m doubling down on the good stuff again.

Why am I writing about this? 1) I’m a writer and I make sense of things by writing about them; 2) I think it’s really interesting; 3) Maybe you’ve experienced this, or maybe someone you know has.

I’m not writing about this for sympathy I'm not even sure I like sympathy very much, although I do value understanding. And I’m definitely not writing this to get your advice – seriously, do NOT give me advice. That will literally cause a reaction in me. Don’t do it.

Here's the thing though also. I'll be fine. I'm smart, I'm aware, I've got resources of all kinds, and I'll be grand. It's very unpleasant, but I will get beyond this and I'm not in the least bit worried about it. Maybe someone else won't. 'Cos most people won't talk about it.

If you have experienced any of this, or similar, I’d love to hear about your experiences and how you’re dealing with it.

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Jan 10, 2021

This was an eye opener for me. I think I have lived most of my life this way. The feelings you describe I have had all my life. It always comes back no matter how good things are the aggression and paranoid thoughts are always lurking in the background. It was my childhood of being alone and detached. It is a new awarenesses that I have lived a lot in a detached mode to keep being seen, hurt and blamed for things I don't own. It's an awful feeling to carry. Hope yours goes away !


Jun 25, 2020

I just want to say - thank you for writing this. Reading it is literally healing for me. It's showing that I'm not alone in feeling those same symptoms - severe longing for simple human presence around me. I'm in a similar situation as you, isolated at a beautiful place in French mountains that most would consider paradise. So I felt guilty to even mention how I feel inside. I judged myself as being spoiled and ungrateful. However, the feelings you describe are very real for me and they gradually lower my self-trust in myself and my self-esteem. To make matters more difficult, my French is not good enough to be able to even get into a conversation at a…


Jun 23, 2020

Yes, it has been interesting. There was the crafting stage, the clean out clutter stage, the bread baking stage (and I avoid wheat as well, but it was as if I was possessed). Trepidation at going out...yes, at times. My saving grace has been the Women's Heart group with which I'm affiliated. There are 2-4 zoom meetings a week. Then there's Silver Sneakers who has all sorts of videos but also holds live exercise sessions via Zoom and I take 2-4 classes a week. My weekly book club became a Zoom discussion group. I live in a large apartment building where I occasionally run into neighbors in the garden or hallways. Life will never be normal again but I'…

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