As the presenter of the Dear Prudence podcast, Daniel M. Lavery often gives advice straight out of New York. But from time to time he also voices his concerns, as in a recent episode when he responded to a lone university student who was apprehensive about social interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lavery made his mark:
“It’s really hard to think about being around people again. One thing that strikes me when I think about the prospect of being in a room full of masked people again is that I spent a lot of time that day., And now sometimes I find myself having a kind of panic reaction… I don’t want to be scared, after all that’s what I want, which is scared.”
Many of us are in the same boat. We were forced to be antisocial, at least in physical terms, for a year now.
As a result, many people find any personal social interaction awkward – it seems we need to re-learn how to sit in a room with another human being.
Even dreams have been replaced in an unprecedented way, with a tendency for nightmares related to social distancing.
So when the restrictions are over, will we have to go through a learning curve to feel ‘normal’? Have our social muscles eroded in some way, and do we have to “exercise” them again?
Fortunately, these muscles are quite flexible, and reports from places that were less affected by COVID-19 suggest that it doesn’t take long for some version of social normality to return.
Still, expect some setbacks along the way. So it can be helpful to be prepared for them.
your mind in isolation
It should come as no surprise that many of us may be feeling “rusty” socially.
We all, to varying degrees, experience loneliness and social isolation during pandemics, two conditions that may be linked to cognitive decline in specific ways.
For example, people with smaller, less complex social networks have a smaller amygdala, the brain’s emotion processing center.
Chronic loneliness can affect hormone levels associated with stress and social bonds; One of the effects may be a greater propensity for depression. In general, lonely people are more paranoid and negative.
Prolonged isolation also affects memory and verbal recall. Social organisms, including humans, require a lot of interactive stimulation to keep their brains in good shape.
So, if you are currently having difficulty finding that word on your tongue, then lockdown may play a role.
In my case, now 90% of the time, I only talk to my partner, in a conversational pattern I’m very used to.
I tremble a little when talking to a friend, as if I needed to figure out a language that was once familiar.
Once people are allowed to spend time together again, it can be difficult to find the right words.
Of course, as individual circumstances vary widely, so will the transition to social life post-pandemic.
An unemployed, medically vulnerable person who has spent all their time living alone may feel more disoriented in the next stage than a financially stable person who lives and works in a large shared household.
Overall, some behavioral changes can be quickly reversed with a return to more normal social patterns.
But Daniela Rivera, a biologist at Universidad Mayor de Santiago in Chile, believes that physiological changes in the brain, such as those related to memory, will not go away so easily.
As parts of the brain shrink, memory function can be compromised for years after a period of social isolation – and with it, our ability to connect easily with other people.
But that’s not how our minds have changed.
Overall, psychologists are seeing more adults reporting stress about social interactions, from not knowing how to end a conversation without a handshake or a hug, to opting out of the conversation.
But some groups are specific sources of concern.
The situation is especially delicate for people with social anxiety disorder.
“It’s very important to keep progressing — because once you’re not around people, as we haven’t for about a year, it’s very easy to go back to old patterns,” explains Marla Genova, a former psychology researcher. , who is now a coach of people with social and speech anxiety.
There is also concern about school-age children who have lost their social coordination during the uncertainty of the lockdown.
“At this age, the brain is still developing and refining neural connectivity, so this is an important stage for developing the social skills that will define your interactions with your peers,” Rivera explains.
She fears that prolonged isolation may lead some people to develop social phobia.
Elderly people, in turn, are more likely to be alone and may feel less comfortable with technological tools to maintain social interactions.
Rivera predicts that periods of resocialization may have some effects on vulnerable people, such as hyperactivity, intolerance, irritability and anxiety, among others.
how to go back slowly
Extended lockdowns and different cultures will provide different experiences as countries issue restrictions. But some similarities and lessons can be seen.
Physical contact, an aspect that was once assumed to be about being around other people, is likely to feel awkward for some time.
For Andre Robles, who runs a travel agency in Quito, Ecuador, where some restrictions have been lifted, “it’s a little strange to see such a warm society taking some away in their compliments.”
“The elbow bump became the new hello salute,” he says.
It feels awkward to hug other people again.
The issue that requires some calibration, for Melanie Musson, an insurance specialist living in Montana, is to explore each person’s different attitudes toward their risk of contracting the disease.
In the deeply divided state over the use of masks, the cases are gradually decreasing.
“It’s weird when I meet people who care about COVID,” Musson explains. “Since I mostly surround myself with people who don’t (care), I live in a bubble of normalcy. There are a lot of people out there who disagree and aren’t comfortable, though. My bubble burst when I realized a lot of people haven’t come back to normal.”
In fact, masked socialization is helping to make things more normal in Singapore, says Roger Ho, a psychologist at the National University of Singapore: “Life is as usual, only with a mask on.”
Previous experience with mask use, such as during the SARS epidemic, and high adherence to government requirements helped.
Ho suggests that where there is resistance to masks, more public education could help make this look less awkward.
One way to ease judgment about dating and the crowd panicking is to limit your social circle, and many people are reporting doing so.
“It probably wasn’t a year when you would introduce some of your friends to other friends they don’t know. So that’s part of the sensitivity and awkwardness to Covid-19 – not wanting to widen the circle of friends too much,” They say. Matilda Marseilles, a French culture blog writer who lives in Adelaide, Australia.
In fact, many are noted to be more selective in terms of both physical and psychological comfort in who they choose to socialize with.
Research by psychologist Richard Schleicher and his colleagues at the University of Georgia in the United States suggests that the major loss of casual social interaction was partially offset by the strengthening of immediate family ties and close friendships, which people usually do most. attach importance.
Social re-adaptation can mean learning how to return the time and energy invested in family to friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, without losing the closeness built up with loved ones.
Throughout the process, it’s important to be patient and kind to yourself.
As the US National Center for Social Anxiety advises, “Keep in mind that each of us is now somewhat socially awkward.”
There is no need to rush to get rid of estrangement.
One of the few positives of the long vaccination campaign is that “the slow re-adaptation of this process will help,” Slater says, emphasizing our resilience.
“Some of the ensuing stress, like guests coming home again, will be a pleasant stress.”
And for those who think they may have a hard time reintegrating into society, treatment for social anxiety disorder can provide some perspective.
This often involves exposure therapy, that is, gradual exposure to uncomfortable situations in order to develop a greater tolerance for them.
Despite the rules of social distancing, there are still ways to get this exposure – for example, you can exchange comments on social media or share opinions to practice assertiveness.
Avoidance of social situations can only lead to greater avoidance.
Therefore, Genova, the social anxiety coach, encourages people to spend no more than a few consecutive days in isolation whenever possible. But it doesn’t have to mean physical contact.
Biologists recommend, for example, “a variety of environmental enrichment” to reduce the stress of Riviera isolation.
This can include physical activities such as biking, social activities such as virtual “cafes”, cognitive activities such as brain training games, as well as emotional activities such as therapy.
In the end, whether we have to prepare today to answer the phone, clumsy imitation of a hug, or find out if we’re comfortable with when a friend suggests a date, that social resilience can help. Remember what begins to manifest around us. can help.
Iconic photos of a crowded swimming pool during a concert in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, are an example of how the world will be able to return to social life when it is safe to do so.