Sure, we complain about how much we miss socializing while under lockdown. But, re-adjusting to life after social distancing is still tough for some. How come?
Turns out our “social muscles” may need to be re-trained.
Daniel Lavery, the host of the podcast Dear Prudence, expressed his own social anxieties with having to re-socialize once the pandemic is under control:
“It’s really, really hard to think about being around people again. One of the things that’s struck me as I think about the possibility of someday again being in like a crowded room with other people without a mask on is, like, I have spent a very long time longing desperately for such a day, and I also sometimes now catch myself having this sort of like panicked response… I don’t want to be afraid of that, that’s the thing I want. And yet, I also have this, you know there’s a part of me that now reacts in a way that I did not used to, which is terror.”
Spending a great portion of our previous months with social distancing rules, even whilst having to report to work for jobs where WFH is not possible, we have gotten socially awkward. Maybe this is not something you relate to, if so, I envy you because I am terrified of socializing again and showing my mask-less face in crowds.
Could there be a reason for this? Have our social muscles really worn down in isolation? Turns out yes, but also, good news, we are great at rebounding back to our usual social selves.
Let’s dive deeper and take a look inside the brain for answers as to what happens to ourselves during social isolation and why this may make some of us socially awkward.
If you’ve felt pretty low during isolation and exclaimed the typical “I almost forgot how your face looks like in real life” when reunited with friends, these are bound to make a lot of sense when you read the following:
Self-isolation studies during COVID-19 have generally found cognitive decline and increased stress and anxiety-like mood to be associated with isolation. These findings are also in line with studies that deliberately isolated animals and found stress-like behaviour, loneliness, and impaired social memory, like remembering a familiar face.
To look forward to socializing and maintaining social connections, our brain’s intricate social circuitry engages in social homeostasis. This is super crucial to us (and the entire animal kingdom) as we depend on social connections for our livelihood, hence prolonged isolation does have dire consequences. The social circuitry includes important brain regions needed for socializing including the hippocampus for social recognition memory (needed to identify familiar faces), the medial prefrontal cortex coupled with a brain network consisting the hippocampus, amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex to consolidate this memory, among other regions. These regions are activated when you engage in social connections and mostly unactivated when you are not, like during an extended isolation. As a result, social dysfunction and fear are likely to stem when re-socializing, as you’ve missed out on activating your brain with social cues (like your friend’s facial expressions) and become socially rusty.
But, fear not friend, your social awkwardness won’t likely last for too long! The US National Social Anxiety Center advises that gradually adjusting to social situations again is the key, there is no need for a rush. Hang out with your close friend circles first and build up on this, if you are afraid to socialize in larger circles.
Our social resilience is seen where some regions that were previously isolated are now bustling with people in crowds, socializing again, so don’t lose hope. It is a process.
What’s been done currently to learn more about what COVID-19 does to our brains while in social isolation?
Something cool: The COVID-19 Brain Study is an ongoing global study to understand how COVID-19 affects our cognition due to the disease and while in social isolation even without the disease. Anyone above 18 years or older can sign-up to be part of this study (click the link here). What’s cool is that you will be notified of your results on how the pandemic has affected you personally!