It seems adults deprived of consistent and varied peer contact can get just as clumsy at social interactions as inexperienced kids. 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 over-sharing on Zoom, overreacting or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others. It’s an odd social malaise that can easily become entrenched if we don’t recognize why it’s happening and take steps to minimize its effects. “There are biological reasons for this,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “It’s not a pathology or mental disorder.”
Even the most introverted among us, she said, 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. So 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, which Dr. Cacioppo said many of us are likely experiencing now. Even if you are ensconced in a pandemic pod with a romantic partner or family members, you can still feel lonely — often camouflaged as sadness, irritability, anger and lethargy — because you’re not getting the full range of human interactions that you need, almost like not eating a balanced diet. We underestimate how much we benefit from casual camaraderie at the office, gym, choir practice or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers.
Many of us have not met anyone new in months. “This daily interacting with individuals out in the world gives you a sense of belonging and security that comes from feeling you are part of, or have access to, a wider community and network,” said Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “Social isolation slashes that network.” The privation sends our brains into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognise and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hyper-vigilant and over-sensitive. Layer on top of that a capricious virus and we’re all tightly coiled for fight or flight.
That’s why it’s important to block out time every day to connect with others, whether through a socially distanced chat, telephone call or, at the very least, a thoughtful text. And as we all gradually re-emerge from our confinement and widen our social circles, don’t expect anyone or anything to be the same. People inevitably change over time and certainly after something significant, like a pandemic, upends their lives and shakes their confidence in what they thought they knew. Values shift. Personalities alter. None of us are the same. So give yourself and everyone else a break. Have patience for your own and other people’s weirdness.
Murphy is a contributor to NYT©2020
The New York Times