Reconnecting after Covid: Why Human Interaction May Take Time as Lockdown Eases
The easing of COVID-19 restrictions and being able to see more of your family and friends comes as a relief after months of social restrictions, but will this welcome change bring its own stressors?
One of the biggest challenges of lockdown has been the social isolation that many people experience physically as well as emotionally. Over the past year, people have had to adjust to life without social interactions in place that support and enhance their lives. This has caused major stress and harmed mental health. Covid crisis may have effects on mental health that last for years – Dr Julie Arthur.
But as the restrictions ease a new challenge arises. Social interactions may feel awkward – even anxiety-inducing. How do you re-integrate ways of living that were once second nature and now feel foreign, even unsafe?
As we take our tentative steps out into the world, will we need to re-learn how to socialize?
How Lockdown Changed Socializing
Socializing as we knew it came to a standstill during the pandemic. What we came to realise was not that we have a social life, but that our life is social. As we need each other - some to a greater degree than others, granted.
Being forced to restrict our interactions, whether that meant not being able to visit friends, meet for lunch in a cafe, go to work, exercise at the gym, volunteer, or attend a place of worship, brought sharply into focus the necessity for human connection. Video calls and social media have bridged the gap for some, but there is no substitute for interaction in person.
Neurological and Biological Effects
Human contact is a basic need, essential for all-round health including a healthy brain. Studies have discovered a relationship between periods of social isolation and decline in cognitive function. How Social Isolation Affects the Brain
Researchers have even found shrinkage in areas of the brain associated with social interaction, including the amygdala – the brain’s emotional processing centre. People with larger, more complex social networks have a correspondingly larger amygdala compared with those with smaller networks.
Other parts of the body are affected by our social life too: stress hormones have been shown to increase in people experiencing loneliness, which not only affects their health but negatively affects social bonding. This causes people to withdraw from the contact that would help them thereby reinforcing the problem.
Social interaction is mentally stimulating as well as being emotionally supportive. People experience the negative effects of social isolation subjectively as depression, anxiety, low mood, and poor performance.
You may find that if your daily interactions are only with a few individuals – your partner and kids, for example, you get bored of talking about the same things. Not only that, when you do get the chance to talk to others you may feel anxiety at being lost for words, not used to stretching yourself in conversation or just having nothing to report.
Anna, an artist living with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter said: “When I do see people and chat, I feel like the connection between brain and mouth isn't working. My conversation skills are a little rusty. It's definitely going to feel weird, especially when big groups are allowed.”
Will the Damage be Easily Reversed?
Once we can socialise in a more normal way, the trauma of social isolation can start to heal. No one knows how long it will take and who will be most affected. Children, as they grow, are shaped by their environment – including the social experiences they have and any damage during this critical period for socialising may have affected them more profoundly than adults.
But that’s not to say grown-ups won’t feel the hangover lingering. Those who have had good support networks may be more resilient, but the old, frail, and vulnerable may never want to leave their homes again.
Hopefully, once we can interact freely with one another the benefit of social interaction will help mitigate the long months of isolation. But it may not be as simple as picking up where you left off.
Ailey has recently returned to work after maternity leave. She said: “It's interesting that the online video communication that felt a bit clunky at first has become the norm. It's sometimes interacting with people in real life that is a bit rusty.” Ailey, like many people, has mixed feelings about being able to socialise again: “I almost can't imagine meeting in a large group, even with friends and family but I can't wait for it.”
Social Anxiety – the New Normal?
The transition from isolated to liberated can be full of apprehension. For many of you, it was a challenge to adjust to life in lockdown and moving forward will require further adjustment. Especially if you have found yourself growing more uneasy and socially anxious.
Everyone is different and you will experience the opening up of society in your unique way. Physical contact may feel odd. You might be self-conscious of wearing a mask – or threatened by someone who doesn’t. Things like crowds may make some people nervous, while others will love to be back among the crowds.
How to Reintegrate Contact
Lifting lockdown brings longed for opportunities for social connection, but when the time comes people may be reluctant to move forward. Not only through fear of catching the virus but also the feeling of vulnerability borne of months of stress and isolation may inhibit the drive to connect. This is still a time of healing and there will be mixed emotions.
Avoidance breeds avoidance. The longer periods we spend away from each other, the harder it gets for our socialising to come naturally. But that doesn’t mean ignoring the feelings of disquiet you may have. If you are concerned about the easing of lockdown be kind to yourself while challenging any fears about stepping out into the world again.
Move at your own pace - only you can decide what’s right and what you are comfortable with. Take it a step at a time and start by socialising only with those closest to you. Remember that reconnecting with other members of the human race is essential for your wellbeing.
Interacting with a supportive and loving family and community is essential to our wellbeing so the effects of lockdown may linger for some time.
Loosening of restrictions is a welcome relief for many, but it is normal to experience some trepidation as lockdown eases.
If learning to socialise again makes you nervous or you feel awkward take it in easy stages. Try to enjoy each moment with the people you care about and learn to notice and be kind to yourself when things don’t quite go to plan, like when you feel anxious instead of joyful.
Acknowledge that an elbow bump is not as good as a hug, but at least you are showing you care. Your loving attitude to your friends and family will go much further than you think.
Life is change. It’s how we deal with it that counts. Over the last year, you have dealt with a huge change and maybe you have surprised yourself at how well you did.
You can navigate the new-new normal with grace and love. The easing of lockdown will bring challenges along with blessings. Remember talking is always a good idea, so don't block it, talk!
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