Strikingly, texting with a parent provided no more comfort than having no contact at all. But telephone communication was just as effective as being able to touch and see a parent.
Do we have a ferocious attachment to our everyday routine? And how adaptable and flexible can we be in the face of adversity? The answers were sometimes surprising. First, the stress of 2020 did not make most of us clinically depressed for the same reason that a vast majority of people don’t get PTSD after exposure to trauma. Humans are pretty resilient. Sure, snapshot surveys show we currently feel more anxious and down, but it remains to be seen if this will subside or translate into a rise in the rate of major depression.
Many people discovered that they could maintain their relationships with friends and families, even if they couldn’t be with them in the flesh, through virtual technology like Zoom and FaceTime. That invites an intriguing question: Just what elements of communication do we really need to feel meaningfully connected to people?
Think about it. Is it more comforting to touch, hear or text a loved one? Researchers tried to answer this question in a study of young children who were put in a mildly stressful situation — asked to perform math and verbal tasks in front of an audience — and then given a randomly assigned form of parental contact: in-person; by text, by telephone and no contact at all.
Researchers asked the children afterward how they felt, and then measured their levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the level of the prosocial hormone oxytocin. Strikingly, texting with a parent provided no more comfort than having no contact at all. But telephone communication was just as effective as being able to touch and see a parent.
The clear implication is that you don’t need to literally see your loved ones and friends to feel your bond with them. As a maxim sometimes attributed to Helen Keller says, “Blindness cuts us off from things; but deafness cuts us off from people.” Despite the availability of technology, some people found it impossible to abide the quarantine, even though they are in high-risk groups. They longed for parties and dined inside at restaurants. They probably would not have considered themselves risk-takers at all before the pandemic. They took good care of themselves: They ate healthfully, exercised and dutifully went for their medical check-ups. They rolled up their sleeves for all their vaccines. Yet here they were ready to put their lives on the line for the pleasure of the company of friends. This experience also revealed our capacity for trusting others — and trusting our own memory. Did we inadvertently forget a brief exposure in the outside world the day before we saw a friend?
So how did we do with our stress test? I’d say for many, pretty well. Surveys tell us that we are more anxious and depressed than we were a year ago. Still, we adapted the best we could and did OK. Here’s to a better 2021.
Dr Friedman, a psychiatrist, is a contributing writer with NYT©2020
The New York Times