Start retraining for social interactions

By | March 29, 2021

But after a year spent internalising public health precautions for social distancing and mask-wearing, the prospect of readjusting to in-person social engagements may be a daunting one. For many, it provokes a sense of profound discomfort, apprehension or ambivalence.

“It’s a new version of anxiety,” said Dr Lucy McBride, an internist in Washington who writes a newsletter about managing the coronavirus crisis. You may discover that your continuing concerns about the virus are colliding with a new set of worries about seeing others more regularly: What am I comfortable with? How do I act? What do I say?

“There’s two feelings that are continuing to exist for me,” said Allison Harris-Turk, 46, an events and communications consultant and mother of three in San Diego. Harris-Turk created the Facebook group Learning in the Time of Corona, where many among the roughly 16,700 members are discussing the pros and cons of reentry. “There’s the excitement and the optimism and the hope, and then there’s also the grief and the trauma and ‘oh, my goodness, how are we going to recover from this?’ ”

Here’s how some individuals and experts are starting to think about closing the social distance.

Start small.

Though you may be chafing at the confines of the lockdown, remember that it’s still not entirely safe to resume social activities as before. Across most of the country, the risk of coronavirus transmission remains high.

If you’re wary of reentry, begin with a lower-stakes outing. “It’s like little baby steps getting back into it,” said Dr David Hilden, a Minneapolis-based internist who hosts a weekly radio show during which he answers listeners’ pandemic questions. He’s observed this firsthand: Earlier this month, he met up with a friend to share a beer for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. “Now that we’ve dipped our toe in the water, a lot of Zoom meetings end with, ‘Hey, I think we can get together now,’” he said.

Understand that hanging out might take more effort.

After receiving her first shot of a coronavirus vaccine, Aditi Juneja, a New York-based lawyer, expected to feel the same flood of relief that some of her peers had described after getting theirs. While on the phone with a friend, she started to consider future late nights and travel to far-off destinations. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to dance on bars,’ ” Juneja, 30, said. “There was a euphoria about imagining the possibilities.”

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But after 10 minutes, she found even the fantasy versions of these scenarios exhausting. The reality can be, too. She described the sensory overload and disorientation she felt while dining outdoors with a friend for the first time in months. “I think our ability to take inputs has really lowered,” Juneja said.

This is especially true for individuals suffering from social anxiety, for whom the lockdowns have offered some relief, and for whom reopening presents new stressors. But even extroverts may experience an adjustment period as our brains adapt to planning and monitoring responses to unfamiliar situations. At the beginning of the pandemic, people had to change their behaviours  to comply with social distancing, mask-wearing and sheltering in place. But learning those new behaviours — and now, relearning old ones — can take a cognitive toll.

“Social settings are particularly demanding,” said David Badre, author of the book “On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done” and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University. “When we have to really focus and plan what we’re doing, that comes with an experience of mental effort,” he continued. “It feels like a mental fatigue.”

There is good news, however. You’ll most likely find it easier to relearn old behaviours than learn entirely new ones. “The key is to not avoid that effort,” Badre said. “By reengaging, you will get used to it again.”

Set boundaries for yourself.

Though the past month has seen a spate of reopenings across the country, some scenarios might still set off a siren in your head. And because these facilities are open, doesn’t mean you need to go.

But what if a friend or family member does want to see a movie or dine out? If you express disagreement over what is safe, you might feel as though you are implying your companions are less responsible or unethical.

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Sunita Sah, a professor at University of Cambridge and Cornell University has researched this phenomenon, which she calls “insinuation anxiety.” In studies, Sah has found that patients frequently follow medical advice from their doctor even if they believe their doctor to have a conflict of interest, and that job candidates often answer interview questions they know are illegal to ask. These reactions come partly out of concern that to disagree would suggest the other person — the doctor or the job interviewer — is not trustworthy.

A similar situation can play out if you’re confronted with someone whose attitude toward public health protocols differs from your own. Sah’s research has shown that when individuals have the opportunity to weigh their decisions in private, they are less likely to experience this anxiety and do something that makes them uncomfortable. She recommended writing down the boundaries that you would like to adhere to and taking time before agreeing to someone else’s plan.

“Assess your own risk level and comfort,” Sah said, “so you’re very clear about what you would and would not like to do.” This will also provide you with a clear document of how your comfort levels are changing over time as you readjust.

Brace for tough conversations.

Over the past year, public health guidance often wildly varied on federal, state and even city levels, with some areas flinging open their doors while experts still advised caution. This has also been reflected in interpersonal relationships. It’s created friction between couples, families and friends, and prompted individuals to ask challenging, sometimes seemingly intrusive questions. Now, you may be adding “Are you vaccinated?” to that list. (On Twitter, one woman recently proposed “reentry doulas” to help families navigate conversations about setting boundaries.)

Still, it will continue to be important to have these conversations in the coming months. “This isn’t abstract,” said Marci Gleason, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin whose lab has been surveying relationships in quarantine. “It comes directly to the question of whether we can socialise with others or not, in the way that they want to.” Sometimes, it can feel like a proxy battle over how much you value each other’s friendship. Be open about your own fears and vulnerabilities, and make it clear that when you disagree, you’re expressing your own preference and not rejecting the other person. Keep it simple, too, especially with friends or relatives with whom you don’t frequently have emotional, candid talks.

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This empathy and candour  will also be an asset if you find that your friends and peers have developed the tendency to overshare, either out of anxiety or being starved for conversation. (You may be doing it yourself, too.) If a conversation subject makes you uncomfortable or anxious, say so.

“Being really open and direct is the best way,” said Dr Danesh Alam, a psychiatrist and the medical director of behaviour health services at Northwestern Medicine Central Dupage Hospital. Alam suggested studying up for conversations, preparing some questions and topics in order to chat with more intention and keep things on topic.

Take your time.

It’s OK if you don’t feel ready to see people socially again. Through the challenges of the lockdown period, you may have found that “your mental health is served best when you have time for calm and rest and introspection,” McBride said.

So pace yourself while considering the benefits of getting back out there.

Even casual interactions have shown to foster a sense of belonging and community. “Social interaction is critical to our existence,” Alam said. Remember, too, that there are bound to be some weird moments as you start seeing others more regularly and your pandemic instincts (no hugging) and before-times instincts (“Do you want a bite of this?”) collide.

“If you’re comfortable going to a dinner at a small family restaurant, you can do that,” Hilden said. “If you want to wait a month or two, that’s OK, too.”

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