- Even before COVID-19, researchers suggested that society was facing a “loneliness pandemic” and social anxiety disorder was on the rise.
- Quarantine migrated most conversations to digital spaces, which can feel less risky, but people's in-person conversational skills may be rusty.
- Having neutral topics at the ready, practicing and giving oneself ample grace can help as people re-enter communal spaces.
In 2018, researchers suggested we were facing a “loneliness pandemic” when a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Economist found that more than one-fifth of adults in both the United States and the United Kingdom were experiencing notable loneliness. Policymakers, technology companies, researchers, and the popular press all wondered if the increase in technology use was to blame or if aging populations were at fault. At the end of the day, it appeared that loneliness was correlated with health and relationship concerns as well as with a lack of meaningful connectedness to others.
At the same time that researchers were coining the phrase “loneliness pandemic,” Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) was on the rise, affecting 15 million Americans over the age of 13. Equally common among women and men, individuals who live with it often experience symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help. Physiological and emotional symptoms result from SAD as does the avoidance of situations wherein one may be required to interact with others.
Fast forward three years and we are emerging from a pandemic of a completely different sort. COVID-19, which required nearly 15 months of relative global isolation, certainly took a toll on our health and relationships and impacted the way in which we had (or did not have) meaningful connection with others.
Emerging from Digital Spaces
When quarantine happened, much of the world migrated its communication to digital channels. Video conferencing became mainstream and our learning, entertainment, and socializing all happened in the same spot: on our screens. In many ways, technology saved us. In other ways, however, it did not. While it may not have directly intensified the issues of loneliness and/or SAD, it certainly did nothing to help resolve them. While some people found that their loneliness subsided during quarantine, as they were freer to pursue relationships in digital spaces without the need for taking in-person risks, for many, the simple lack of practice in embodied spaces will make re-entry difficult.
I’ve written before about how our technology use left us bereft of the very skills we needed to weather lockdown well. Now it seems fitting that we talk about how our quarantine habits deliver us to in-person re-entry opportunities with significant impairment in our conversational abilities and stamina. Being able to do the work of small talk requires comfort with in-the-moment exchanges that have dynamic lives of their own, relative ease with eye contact, and access to experiences about which we can talk. Given the way we’ve spent the last many months, we lack practice in each of these areas.
Tips for Reconnecting In-Person
As we move more deeply into embodied interactions, we’d all do well to prepare ourselves for the inevitable awkwardness, feelings of fragility, and downright failures that will be involved in re-entry. We’ll race into a social setting filled with excitement only to find ourselves having nothing to talk about, turning red with embarrassment, and feeling self-conscious about the whole encounter. We’ll look forward to a much-anticipated coffee date only to find ourselves exhausted from getting ready for it and wanting to skip it altogether. We’ll make a joke at a work meeting and realize it was horrible or attempt to “rally the troops” only to be met with blank stares and a palpable feeling of anxious energy.
Taking steps to have some neutral topics at the ready (favorite new hobby, a book you’ve recently read, a silly insight about yourself) as well as some “ice breaker” type questions (“What have you read lately?” “What’s something that has made you laugh recently?” “Any new ways of passing the time?”) will go a long way toward feeling relationally competent. So will being ready to be authentic in the moment in such a way that everyone will feel at ease. Having phrases such as “Wow. I feel sort of silly but being out and about in the world is taking a bit more of a toll than I expected and I feel weirdly tired. Can you relate?” or “I’m sheepish saying this but, I feel oddly nervous just trying to have normal conversations in person. How wild is that?” can also go a long way toward helping us feel capable in this time of adjustment.
In the weeks and months ahead, offer yourself ample grace and encouragement, tending to self-care as you take steps to reconnect, in embodied ways, with the important others in your life. In addition, lead your social outreach with empathy and a sense of universality, knowing that, just as we got through the COVID-19 experience together, we’ll get through this time of restarting together.