Kate Murphy, a reporter at the New York Times, wrote an interesting story last month: We’re All Socially Awkward Now.
Murphy writes the following:
Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers, and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward, and intolerant when they return to normal life.
Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.
Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, notes that when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects.
Even if you are part of a pandemic pod, such as family, you can still feel lonely since you may not be getting those casual interactions that you once were, such as running into people we know at the gym or the office.
When isolated, our brains go into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive – ready for a fight. We start to feel self-conscious and avoid social gatherings.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the effects of isolation on inmates, notes, “People feeling uncomfortable with other people is part of what happens when denied the normal social contact that we so much depend on.”
A key way to manage this sense of isolation is to stay in communication with people, by whatever means possible.
And once things start to return to a sense of normalcy, we need to have patience, both with ourselves and others.
Just like getting back into an exercise routine, we need to proceed slowly and with caution, but eventually, we can get to where we were before.
I may be in the minority, but I have not felt any side effects of the pandemic. I have been blessed to have my family around me. I was fortunate to have been able to teach this summer, even if it was over Zoom, and this semester I am teaching all my classes in-person to a wonderful group of students. I guess that gives me all the social contact I needed, which typically is not a lot.
However, as Dr. Cacioppo notes, even the most introverted among us are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.
It’s good to know that even introverts like me need social interaction, so I will be sure to keep lines of communication open among friends and family.
In the meantime, here’s to social awkwardness!
*image from queer-voices