He tested out how isolation could potentially affect the mind when in a dark place with no true sense of time. Michael Siffre made his way to a cave in Texas. He believed he was well-equipped for his stay and had performed a similar experiment back in 1962 for two months and at the end he had no noticeable psychological change. He did however emerge almost a whole month beyond his calculated two months in ‘62. Michael Siffre was keeping track of the days but somehow he emerged from the cave twenty-five days later than his anticipated exit date. This is what drove him to attempt the experiment again. Except this time, he would stay six months in the cave.
While his initial stay in the cave back in 1962, Siffre would stay on a twenty-four hour internal clock for his sleep cycle. In 1972, this was not the case. Siffre would fluctuate his sleep cycle during his stay in the Texas cave. In time his cycles fluctuated from 18 to 52 hours. Over the first two-months Siffre became depressed. Not just feeling down mind you, but he fell into an extreme depression. He became disoriented in the cave due to his circadian rhythm being thrown off his normal 24-hour cycle. The geologist had recorded his thoughts during his stay in a journal. One entry was very telling. His thoughts at the time were recorded as, “Desolation overwhelms me”. The results weakened his eyesight from lack of natural light as well as the extreme depression. There was a period during the halfway point where he contemplated suicide. It was a mind-numbing experience for Michael Siffre and he would go on to attempt this experiment once more over thirty-years later all in the name of science and his research.
This experiment highlights the negative psychological effects brought on due to isolation in humans. We are social creatures and thrive on interaction with others. Isolation is what we are facing now during the coronavirus pandemic. While Michael Siffre’s cave experiments are not quite the level we are seeing today in the world it is the same basic idea. That idea is that social isolation results in poor cognitive health. The social isolation that Siffre faced was living in a cave for months on end. Today our form of social isolation has been coined, “social distancing”. Covid-19 has required us to adapt and change our daily routines in order to prevent its spread. At times we were required to adhere to a curfew that kept us from our day-to-day activities and even jobs in some cases. We even isolated to protect our love ones despite the fact we wanted so desperately to see them. Covid-19 changed our world seemingly overnight. But why I highlighted the experiments of Michael Siffre is to show the mental affect that isolation can bring on.
While social distancing is helping to keep people safe from the coronavirus it is having a negative impact on across the globe. Binge drinking is up. People who had no prior diagnosis before, are now reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression in increasing numbers. Drug overdoses across the United States has risen. The death toll rising throughout the year as people turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the symptoms stemming from their feelings of isolation. Some people are riddled with anxiety over a fear that their world will never return to normal. Others are depressed over the loss of a job or just a break from their normal life. Some even become filled with anxiety and depression due to restrictions imposed on gyms and other similar establishments. Without an outlet for their typical endorphin rush they began to feel down.
It is important in this unheralded time to pay attention to your mental health. Especially those in the substance abuse recovery community. As alcoholics and addicts have a tendency to downplay things. Some in recovery have experienced such hardships that upon first glance they see no issues with the various Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. However, as had mentioned before, Michael Siffre had no discernible mental or physical symptoms after the first two-month long experiment in the cave back in 1962. While he did lose track of time this may be attributed to the fact that he did not see natural light for this period. It was not until the six month stay in the cave that Siffre began to truly suffer from psychiatric symptoms that affected his mental state. Could it have been that the idea of six months alone sets up a feeling of dread knowing that the isolation will last that long? Or was it just the simple fact that Michael Siffre was alone, isolated with no social interaction for six months that drove him to depression and suicidal thoughts? Isolation numbs the brain and causes people to become lethargic which brings on the depression. There is a reason that solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment in the criminal justice setting.
Don’t panic. There are ways to attempt to overcome the lethargy and help stave off depression from creeping in. Exercise. While gyms are open now in the beginning of 2020 they were not. You can still get exercise without a gym membership. You could run outdoors, do body weight exercises or plyometrics at home. You could take up yoga, which is shown to lessen anxiety and stress. Yoga is also a good way to feel revitalized while also help you to fall asleep. Certain movements can be used to tell your body it is time to either wake-up and begin the day or that it is time for bed. Another great source to help with feelings of isolation and improve mental health is to practice mindfulness meditation. By asserting control over your breathing and focusing on the moment, meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease your heart rate and decrease the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body. A new hobby can help as well. Perhaps learn chess (a particular favorite past-time of mine). Read a new book or even just take 20 minutes of your day and make a list of goals you want to achieve for the week. Then set out to achieve them.
As I said earlier, people crave interaction and social distancing is counterproductive to that goal. Unfortunately, we need to do it so things can one day return to the established norm.