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The Rise of Social Atrophy

What is social atrophy, and how can we prevent or heal it?

Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy

On Twitter, people are declaring that when this time is over, they are going to hug every human being they see, in long, enfolding hugs, immersing themselves and their recipients in the power of human touch to connect, transform, lift, and feel better. A disease we’re not immune to has at long last woken up our lonely society to creeping social atrophy.

“As human beings, we have an innate need to be connected to one another. It's the same as when I'm thirsty; it means I need water. When I'm not around people, I feel lonely because I need to be with people.” (Dr. Alice Chen on CBC's Tapestry, 1 May 2020)

I was never one for hugs. Even as a baby, I bent away from them. As an adult, with neck and shoulder injuries from car crashes, hugs pained me. Touch flamed my skin and lit up lines of muscle pain that blossomed into headaches. It was just as well I didn’t like hugs. Yet suddenly, one day, years after my brain injury, a yearning for a hug rose up in me. I think it came out of the same impetus that’s driving Twitter declarations of hugs to everyone and anyone: complete abandonment.

It’s one thing to announce to a friend or family member that you’re busy and can't talk when you’re able to rush through breakfast with your kids, hold multiple phone calls throughout the day, hang out at the cereal bar with your colleagues for a couple of minutes, watch television on your iPad and grind through emails while you sense the close presence of your spouse washing up the dishes. It’s quite another to have a disease wrench you away from those same friends and family you’re too busy for and closet you up with your spouse or kids — or none. Gone is the option to hug, touch, see their faces.

“Reading facial expressions is one of the key ways we interact with and understand others, and the widespread use of face masks interferes with our ability to connect. . . . ‘There was a team of doctors who printed out a whole sheet for their patients. And it had pictures of each of them and a little bit about them and they said, 'We know this is really scary. You can't see our faces and we can't see yours. But this is who we are. This is [what] we actually look like.’

This effort by doctors to build meaningful connections with their patients, despite being hidden behind face masks, is ideal."

Dr. Chen elaborated more on the dangers of this time leading to social atrophy.

“If we're out of practice, if we're not around people enough, then we can get very sucked into our own worlds and lose our ability to connect with people”

A downward loop begins when we become separated from other human beings. Separation leads to loneliness; loneliness drives curling into oneself; curling in leads to others walking away; being abandoned leads to further loneliness. Whether that separation is chosen from idolizing busyness and labeling people as needy who ask for connection or is imposed by illness or catastrophic injuries like brain injury, it still leads to loneliness and social atrophy.

I sometimes look back on my pre-injury life and marvel at the ease with which I invited people over, arranged big celebrations, or hung out with others. I didn’t worry about catching germs — back then my immune system knew what to do with them. That worry-free existence of easy sociability no longer exists within me because brain injury and abandonment lead to social atrophy.

But I think social atrophy also crept into those around me. It’s just that until extreme health measures forced everyone apart, nobody paid much heed. People accepted the myth of busyness, fuelled by the idea that individuals succeed on their own while denying the sadness within such an artificial life.

This wildfire disease scorching its way around the world, has burned that myth and that idea to the ground and revealed we are built for collaboration and connection. Busyness serves only the ego. Labeling justifies our self-injuring selfishness. Individuals never succeed alone. They launch off a support scaffold built by many from acquaintances to loved ones.

Now, suddenly, so many understand nothing can substitute for relationships. Not the “I’m too busy to talk, maybe next week,” nor the clinging to beliefs that only failures ask for help.

Dr. Chen presented four pillars of staying socially healthy and avoiding atrophy. I’d say Western society long ago embraced social atrophy; her pillars are more a way to climb out of atrophy.

  1. Connect with one person every day for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Connect with people deeply so that conversation can naturally dive into depths of sharing and thus increase points of connection.
  3. Volunteer in a way that’s natural to you. And learn to ask for help.
  4. Practice solitude, to learn self-reflection.

    I'd add a fifth pillar to reclaim our true social natures of collaboration, hanging out, deep conversation, and making ourselves available to help and ask for help.

  5. Reach in. Everyone knows someone who was struggling long before this time, someone whom you may have said, “Call me if you need anything,” then hearing nothing, figured they needed nothing. They didn’t call because it’s difficult to keep asking to accommodate their needs so as to help them when the busyness and labeling songs reject, leaving them in desperate straits. Today, reach in to know the person, think about them, listen to their story, and help. And in reaching in, you can participate in their success as you help them rebuild.

Isn’t that the ultimate high? Being part of each other’s success? Happiness bubbles up out of you and flows into others in those moments. And heals our divisions.

Copyright ©2020 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.


Murthy, Vivek H. (2020). Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Harper Wave.

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