How remote work may damage our brains and what to do about it

By Leo

I love working remotely. It created a sense of freedom and choice in my life. And I’ve been doing it all my working life for the last decade or so, even though I took 2.5 years off to live in the woods. At my previous company (Buffer), we became somewhat of a poster child regarding remote work. I gave dozens of talks and wrote articles about how great remote work is in front of thousands of people. And I continue to believe in the benefits that remote work has and continue to work remotely myself. 

And yet, I think it’s important to shed light on the challenges that remote work can bring. There was an inspiring post by Ryan Hoover recently collecting over 1500 responses from people who reported their challenges on remote work. You can read some of what people said in this thread:


From reading this and pondering the topic for some years, I’m inspired to talk more about the problem. I’d also like to add a new framework from neuroscience that might offer a solution. 

Loneliness, disconnection and the social engagement system of human brains

From Ryan’s article, here’s a list of the biggest challenges that people self-report when working remotely: 

  • Loneliness
  • Disconnecting 
  • Need for Spontaneous connection (i.e.: “Water cooler serendipity”)
  • Communication 
  • Respect

I’d like to connect these issues to our deeper, physiological biology. The neuroscientist Stephen Porges, author of “The Polyvagal Theory” discovered something astounding in the last couple of decades. Our whole nervous system, state of wellbeing and brains are largely (80%-90% to be precise) influenced by the largest nerve in our body: The vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is split into 2 kinds, an older, 500+ million year old Vagus nerve that we inherited from reptiles and a younger one, about 200-300 million years old, that we inherited from early mammals. 

This younger vagus nerve is what matters so much when it comes to remote working. Biologically, it connects from our guts, through our hearts, to our face and into our ears through to our skull brain. Every time we have a real-life interaction with somebody our younger vagus nerve, sometimes also called our social engagement system is activated and exercised, like a muscle. And since most of our interactions are different, our vagus nerve gets lots of good exercise: A friend that is sad who we sit with for a bit, a co-worker that is angry that we make some space for, our partner that wants to celebrate where we join in with our cheers. All of these moments of connection mean exercise for our social engagement system.

The yellow lines are the vagus nerve

If we were hooked up to some measuring devices, we would observe the differing vagal tone throughout our human-to-human interactions. Sometimes a higher vagal tone, sometimes lower, depending on what the situation calls for, this would influence our heart rate, our digestions and many other of our body functions too. And generally it would strengthen and put protein onto our vagus nerve, as long as the experience isn’t overwhelming.

The self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness and the vagus nerve

The challenges around loneliness arise when we go long stretches without exercising our vagus nerve, like most of us do during remote work. Slowly, the same thing that happens to any muscle in our body, even our vagus nerve: It starts to atrophy. This is confirmed for example with experiments where mice are taken out of their social environment and into isolation, after which their brain cells atrophy that are related to social engagement. 

The feeling of loneliness therefore can be almost seen like an alarm system of the brain. The brain is saying “help, we’re about to lose our sense of safety and ability to connect with other humans, which we need to survive. Please exercise me and interact with others”. Many of us however haven’t been taught to be with loneliness, so as a first response, we get scared. Instead of saying “oh yeah, I gotcha loneliness, let me go hang out with some people”, we often self-isolate even further because of the fear that accompanies loneliness. This turns into a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy and cycle over time. Because our social engagement circuits have become weak, many of us no longer feel safe to enter interactions with other humans. All of a sudden, the simple interactions of check-ins, banter and other forms of social contact no longer feel safe and enjoyable. And for good reason, with a weak social engagement system, interactions can quickly overload and drain our nervous system of its energy. 

As a consequence we spend even less time around other humans, which in turn creates even more loneliness and makes our brain cells and social engagement circuits atrophy even further. This chronic state of isolation is linked to all sorts of difficult disorders, including anxiety, depression, PTSD and so forth. Although for the record, I don’t think we need to classify any of these mental disorders so much, as long as we understand that simply a part of our brain has atrophied and we need to rebuild it. Which brings me to the next section!

Getting out of the loneliness spiral and exercising your social engagement circuits

If you’re working remotely or if you feel lonely often, let’s look at how you can rebuild your social engagement circuits: 

  • Build up slowly: If any of this article resonated with you, I’d suggest you check in with yourself at this point. How long have you felt lonely or disconnected in your life, because of working remotely or other circumstances? Whatever the answer to that question is, see if you can meet yourself there and acknowledge it, so you can make changes based on it. Answering with “1 month” or “10 years” will require vastly different responses to support yourself. Your friend’s well-intentioned advice to “come join me at this party tonight so you’re not sitting home alone like you do all day for work!” may be the perfect thing for you. Or it might only trigger overwhelm to a social engagement system that has atrophied too much and needs a much slower and quieter build-up. Most people with a more atrophied social engagement system prefer quieter, 1:1 connections over big group outings. Some slower build-up ideas if you feel scared of having more social engagement again in your life could be any of these:
    • A meditation group in your area
    • Seeing a therapist
    • Meeting a friend for coffee 
    • Going to the gym or any workout with a friend
    • Finding a running buddy
  • Finding regularity: Once you identified some social engagement patterns that work for you, see if you can build up regularity around it. Like any muscle that’s become weak, it’ll only rebuild itself and get stronger if you exercise it regularly. Even though that one meeting with a friend felt good, find a way to have regular outings in a way that become a default in your work and life, ideally in some form almost daily. Can you have a standing lunch date once a week with your friend working in the office nearby? Can you take a regular coffee break to connect for a longer period with some of the people around you in the coffeeshop you work from or the co-working space you work out of?
  • Disconnecting loneliness from fear and making it your friend: Something that strikes me over and over again in my work of 1:1 sessions is that once we get close to it, we always recognize that loneliness itself is just a signal to go out and meet people. Yet so often it is overcoupled with fear. Feeling lonely and feeling scared are two different feelings. Nearly every person I worked with, once that was experientially understood on the feelings level saw a very clear opening for what to do next and how to connect with other people again. I’ve written before about how to uncouple 2 feelings from each other that seem like they belong together but really don’t. 

The coffeeshop and co-working space caveat

A common piece of advice I’ve given myself and hear other people recommend in order to combat loneliness and connection related challenges with remote work is “just work from a coffeeshop or a co-working space!”. Although well-intentioned, I think this is challenging. The reason this is challenging that most of us know that being in an environment with other people doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t feel lonely. The 1 minute chat with the barista to pick up your coffee is not enough to feel connected and practice interacting with other humans. Instead, find a way to collaborate with others regularly and on a level where you can share deeper challenges with them, both to have better friendships and co-workers, but also to exercise your social engagement circuits and keep them healthy and strong. 

Conclusion

The rise of remote work has brought enormous benefits to millions of people around the world and it seems that this trend is only going to get bigger and bigger. On the flip side, I’ve firsthand experienced the difficult downsides that remote working can bring both in myself and in my work with founders and professionals, many of them working remotely. I think it’s important to acknowledge and be with those challenges. Ignoring them for too long can have negative consequences on our lives reaching right into the core of our human nervous systems and brains. Luckily enough, once we identify them, finding a way out is possible and often much less scary than originally thought.  What have been your experiences with working remotely and or loneliness? I’d love to have a bigger discussion with folks around what worked and what hasn’t, please let me know in the comments below.