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Will the pandemic leave me emotionally stunted?

Experts weigh in on the social and mental health risks of isolation for young adults

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As you sit on Zoom for what seems like an endless number of hours each day, longing for the embrace of a friend or partner, you may find yourself wondering, “Will this pandemic  permanently change me?” “Will my ability to form relationships be altered forever?” or “Will I find future physical contact too overwhelming?”

According to Dr. Lynn Fainsilber Katz, research professor in child clinical psychology and developmental psychology at the UW, several important developmental tasks occur during the period of late adolescence (ages 18-24) such as exploring identity, establishing autonomy, finding intimacy, and establishing long-term relationships. 

“[It] tends to be a period where a lot of this kind of identity exploration happens with others,” Katz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made some of these developmental tasks more difficult, or even impossible, and it is unclear what the long-term effects will be. 

“We don't have data on this,” Katz said. The best anyone can do is make educated predictions, according to Katz.

As a clinical psychologist, Katz is not concerned about long-term effects for most young adults.

“It will just be sort of a delay,” Katz said.“They’ll just sort of pick up where they left off.”

However, Katz is concerned about those experiencing mental health challenges during the pandemic, because mental health problems are associated with difficulties forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships in the long term. 

This is particularly relevant given that researchers have noted an increased prevalence in mental health disorder symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been highest among young adults.

Associate teaching professor in the department of psychology at UW, and teacher of PSYCH 210: The Diversity of Human Sexuality, Nicole McNichols, Ph.D., imagines two possible outcomes after the pandemic slows down or ends. 

In one scenario, she thinks, “There are going to be emotional and developmental aspects to this which are really stunted that we don't even know about.” 

In an alternate scenario, she hopes that people will be having as much consensual sex as they want and that there will be a heightened drive to be around others. 

“Maybe there'll be such an appreciation and sense of gratitude for that in-person experience that it will make up for [lost time],” McNichols said.

Some researchers are using existing studies on social isolation in animals and chronic loneliness in humans to predict long-term effects of pandemic-caused social isolation in adolescents.  

“The features that sort of characterize adolescence are actually quite stable across cultures and actually even across species,” Dr. Livia Tomova, a Henslow research fellow at the University of Cambridge, said.

In animals, long-term isolation causes changes in their brains and behavior such as increased aggression, greater likelihood for developing an addiction, and changes in their learning and memory. Tomova explained that previously isolated animals often have trouble with “flexible learning.” They learn to associate a task with a reward, but when the task changes, they struggle to adapt their behavior. They tend to persist in doing the old task.

“There seems to be something that makes them very repetitive,” Tomova said. 

When isolation is brief, the effects go away when an animal is reintroduced to a social context. However, “if the isolation occurs during adolescence or throughout development, and then there's a long duration of isolation, there are changes in the brain that seem to be sort of permanent that are not reversible,” Tomova said.

Tomova cautioned that these animal results cannot be directly applied to humans, but they show the importance of studying these phenomena in humans as well.

In humans, studies have found a correlation between people experiencing chronic loneliness and long-term negative health outcomes. However, these results do not show causation, as the reasons why people are lonely in the first place could themselves be the causes of negative health outcomes. Studies have also found that the prevalence of loneliness is higher in older adolescents than in non-senior adults across multiple countries.  

“This age group might, because they already have higher levels of loneliness … sort of show more negative effects of being isolated [during the pandemic],” Tomova speculated.

However, unlike many of the mice in animal studies, we are not completely socially isolated. Plus, we have access to the internet. 

Past fMRI (brain scan) studies have found that simple virtual interactions like a viewing smiling face, or a shared gaze, or hearing someone laugh, robustly engages our brain’s reward system. This suggests that humans are sensitive to these social cues even when they are not in person .

Tomova is hopeful that virtual social interactions will be “a pretty close thing, for our brains at least, to the real thing.”

Since the verdict from science is still out on how our social and emotional development will be affected by the pandemic, you may be wondering how to protect yourself against negative consequences. When asked how we can maintain our relationship skills, Katz said to treat them like an underutilized muscle.

“When you don't exercise your muscles, there's a little bit of potential for atrophy,” Katz said. 

To exercise your relationship skills, Katz recommends initiating contact with people, talking with a wide variety of individuals, and scheduling times to virtually meet. And as always, if you are experiencing mental health challenges, utilize mental health resources such as those at Husky Health & Wellbeing.  

Reach writer Nuria Alina Chandra at Twitter: @AlinaChandra

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