The pandemic has deeply impacted our way of life when it comes to socialization. For many it has completely removed the opportunity for small talk with strangers in coffee shops, bars or on the street, with many working from home it has also lessened the opportunity to catch up with colleagues over the water cooler. From these small interactions to bigger ones, we have been unable to see close friends and even family. Social events from parties to small outings or a quick cup of coffee has been lessened or eliminated completely. Much of the world has dealt with these restrictions and lockdowns due to the pandemic for around a year, and slowly our socialization needs may have adapted to this brave new world.
Many people may have found that they are now less inclined to participate in social events or perhaps have less energy to give to social situations. Huffington Post writes that this is due to the inability to socialize imposed upon us from various restrictions to safeguard against the coronavirus pandemic. Due to this inability we were unable to exercise our ‘social muscles’ so to speak and they shrunk as a result – the digital social opportunities that we did have, such as Zoom, led to a fatigue. Huffington Post adds:
‘At the same time, we’ve lost the habitual bonding we’d become so used to in our day-to-day lives pre-pandemic – the chats with colleagues near the office kettle, the hugs with best friends, the weekend shopping trips with parents – so our desire to love and connect has diminished, says therapist Dee Johnson. “We create a powerful neurotransmitter called oxytocin – a behavioral hormone [when we socialize], which some call the love hormone, as it’s responsible for sexual bonding,” explains Johnson. Oxytocin is important for social bonding, “driving us to want to hug and cuddle, and re-engage with people”.’
There is also the issue that we have been wary of socialization due to the risks of infection it may carry. With social distancing drummed into our minds, it can become very panic-inducing to think of going to a large gathering or even hugging a friend in greeting again. For many this anxiety is at the forefront of their reluctance to jump straight back into socialization, and this is pretty normal.
As we have been forced to be asocial, there may be concerns that our ability to interact smoothly with other, once so instinctive, may have atrophied in some way, and it may take some time to re-learn social cues and interactions. However, as BBC Worklife writes: ‘fortunately, these muscles are fairly resilient, and accounts from places that have been less affected by Covid-19 suggest that it doesn’t take long to return to some version of a social normal. Still, some hiccups are to be expected along the way, so it will help to be prepared for them.’
In terms of the brain, less social contact may have adjusted our cognitive ability somewhat (but not permanently). BBC Worklife writes: ‘It’s not surprising many of us might be feeling socially ‘rusty’. We’ve all, to varying extents, experienced loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic, two things that can be linked to cognitive decline in specific ways.
For instance, people with smaller and less complex social networks tend to have a smaller amygdala, the brain’s emotion-processing center. Chronic loneliness can affect levels of hormones associated with stress and social bonding; one effect may be a greater propensity to depression. In general, lonely people tend to be more paranoid and negative.’
The pandemic will have affected people in different ways and to varying degrees, those with an anxiety disorder for instance, will need to navigate the lifting of restrictions in a way that best suits them. The BBC added: ‘It’s not just how our brains may have changed, however. Overall, psychologists are seeing more adults report stress over social interactions, ranging from not knowing how to bookend interactions without a handshake or a hug, to running out of things to talk about. But certain groups are particular sources of worry.’
The key that many experts highlight is to take it slowly. The ease of social interactions will return and we will slowly begin to feel more positive about these occurrences. Give yourself time, patience and understanding. You don’t need to jump straight back into hugging, but instead take it at your own pace – don’t book a week’s worth of events immediately but take it slow. Speaking to Huffington Post, therapist Dee Johnson said:
“As we start to see and engage with others and activities again, this will improve our moods and give us better emotions… The key to this is, the more we produce happy hormones such as serotonin and dopamine from the rush of the non-essential shop or first football match, it motivates our brain to want more.
Therefore, the stale, heavy, wading-through-mud feeling will lift the more we slowly and carefully re-enter a world that we feel was so long ago we had started to lose hope.”