As podcast presenter Dear Prudence, Daniel M Lavery often gives advice directly from New York. But every now and then he also reveals his own anxieties, as in a recent episode when responding to a lone university student who was apprehensive about social contact during the covid-19 pandemic. Lavery identified himself:
“It’s really, really hard to think about being around people again. One of the things that strikes me when I think about the possibility of ever being in a room full of unmasked people again is that I spent a lot of time desperately looking forward to that day. , and now sometimes I find myself having a kind of panic reaction… I don’t want to be afraid, after all that’s what I want. , who is terrified.”
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, a lot of people are finding any personal social interaction odd — it seems we have to relearn how to sit in a room with another human.
Even dreams have been transformed in unprecedented ways, with a tendency toward 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 atrophied somehow, and will we have to “exercise” them again?
Fortunately, these muscles are quite resilient, 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, some setbacks are expected along the way. So it can be helpful to be prepared for them.
your brain in isolation
It’s not surprising that many of us may be feeling socially “rusty”.
We all, to varying degrees, experience loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic, two conditions that may be linked to cognitive decline in specific ways.
For example, people with smaller, less complex social networks tend to 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 tend to be more paranoid and negative.
Prolonged isolation also affects memory and verbal recall. Social creatures, including humans, need a lot of interactive stimulation to keep their brains in good shape.
So, if you’re currently having a harder time finding that word that’s on the tip of your tongue, lockdown might play a role.
In my case, 90% of the time now, I only talk to my partner, in a conversational pattern I’m pretty used to having.
I get a little shaky when talking to a friend, as if I need to unearth 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 back to post-pandemic social life.
An unemployed, clinically vulnerable person who has spent all his time living alone may feel more disoriented in the next phase than a financially stable person who lives and works in a large shared house.
Overall, some of the behavioral changes can be quickly reversed with a return to more common social patterns.
But Daniela Rivera, a biologist at the Universidad Mayor de Santiago in Chile, believes that physical changes in the brain, such as those related to memory, will not go away so easily.
As some parts of the brain shrink, memory function can be compromised for years after periods of social isolation—and with it, our ability to connect easily with other people.
But it’s not just how our brains may have changed.
Overall, psychologists are seeing more adults reporting stress about social interactions, ranging from not knowing how to end interactions without a handshake or a hug, to running out of conversation.
But certain groups are specific sources of concern.
The situation is especially delicate for people with social anxiety disorder.
“Maintaining progress is very important — because once you’re not around people, as we haven’t been around for nearly 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 are also concerns about school-age children who have lost their social sync during the uncertainty of lockdowns.
“At this age, the brain is still developing and refining neural connectivity, so it’s a critical stage to develop social skills that will define your interactions with your peers,” explains Rivera.
She fears that prolonged isolation could lead some to develop social phobia.
Elderly people, in turn, are more likely to live alone and may feel less comfortable with technological devices to maintain social contact.
Rivera predicts that the resocialization period can 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 varied experiences as countries release restrictions. But some commonalities and lessons can be observed.
Physical contact, an aspect that was once taken for granted with being around other people, is likely to feel awkward for a while.
For Andre Robles, who runs a travel agency in Quito, Ecuador, where some restrictions have been lifted, “it’s a bit strange to see such a warm society being somewhat distant in their compliments.”
“The elbow bump became the new hello salute,” he says.
Other people are finding it awkward to hug again.
The issue that is requiring some calibration for Melanie Musson, an insurance specialist who lives in Montana, is to find out each person’s different attitudes toward the risk of contracting the disease.
Cases are slowly declining in the state, which is deeply divided over the use of masks.
“It’s weird when I meet people who care about covid,” explains Musson. “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 with that and aren’t comfortable, though. My bubble burst when I realized that a lot of people haven’t returned to it. normal.”
In fact, masked socialization is helping to make things look 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 experiences with the use of masks, such as during the SARS epidemic, and high adherence to government requirements helped.
Ho suggests that more public education in places where there is resistance to masks can help socialize in this way to appear less awkward.
One way to reduce judgment about dating and nervousness about crowds is to narrow your social circle, and many people are reporting doing just that.
“It probably wasn’t a year where you would introduce some of your friends to other friends they don’t know. So that’s part of the sensitivity and awkwardness around covid-19 – not wanting to widen the circle of friends too much,” he says. Matilda Marseillaise, a French culture blog writer who lives in Adelaide, Australia.
In fact, several people mentioned being more selective about who they choose to socialize with, as a matter of both physical and psychological comfort.
Research by psychologist Richard Slatcher and his colleagues at the University of Georgia, USA, suggests that the great loss of casual social contact was partially offset by the strengthening of immediate family ties and closer friendships, which people generally value most.
Part of social readaptation can mean learning how to reallocate the time and energy invested in the family back to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, without losing the closeness built with loved ones.
Throughout the process, it’s important to be patient and kind to ourselves.
As the US National Center for Social Anxiety advises, “Keep in mind that each of us is now, to some degree, socially awkward.”
There is no need to rush to get rid of estrangement either.
One of the few positive sides of the long vaccination campaign is that “the slow pace of this process will help with readaptation,” says Slatcher, emphasizing our resilience.
“Some of the stresses to come, like having guests home again, will be a pleasant stress.”
And for those who think they may have a harder time reintegrating into society, treatment for social anxiety disorder may offer some perspective.
This often involves exposure therapy, that is, gradual exposure to uncomfortable situations in order to develop more tolerance for them.
Despite the rules of social distancing, there are still ways to get this exposure — you can, for example, exchange comments on social media or share opinions to practice assertiveness.
Avoiding social situations can only lead to more avoidance.
Therefore, Genova, social anxiety coach, encourages people not to spend more than a few consecutive days in isolation whenever possible. But that doesn’t necessarily mean having physical contact.
Biologist Rivera recommends, for example, “different types of environmental enrichment” to moderate the stress of isolation.
This can include physical activities such as riding a bike, social activities such as virtual “cafes”, cognitive activities such as brain training games, as well as emotional activities such as therapy.
Finally, even if we have to prepare today to answer the phone, do a clumsy imitation of a hug, or find out if we feel comfortable when a friend suggests a date, remember the social resilience that begins to unfold around us. of the world can help.
The iconic photos of crowded swimming pools during a music festival in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, exemplify how the world will be able to get back to social life when it’s safe to do so.
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