En español | As the number of people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine increases, Tami Hackbarth knows the calls will start coming in: invitations from friends who want to meet for dinner, go to the movies or see live concerts.
But to Hackbarth, after months of limiting her social interaction, the idea of that increased interaction causes anxiety.
"There's an expectation that we're going to do things inside again,” says Hackbarth, 51, of Sacramento, California. “I break into a sweat thinking about it.”
Though medical officials now say it's OK to gather in small groups with those who have been vaccinated, and many will feel more confident dining out or reconnecting with family and friends, more than a year of quarantine and social distancing has taken its toll. Spending time in social situations may not be as simple as penciling a date into the calendar.
Stepping back out into the social whirl may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable — even if it's something that once felt natural.
"COVID has really disrupted the way that we interact with others … and there's a strain on social networks [and] relationships,” says Matthew Lee Smith, codirector of the Center for Population Health and Aging at Texas A&M University. “When we get to a situation where [things] are starting to open … the anxiety kicks in … and the question becomes: Is the risk [of going out socially] worth the benefit?"
Embrace the awkwardness
During the height of the pandemic, many people experienced more isolation and loneliness than ever before. Social circles contracted, and daily conversations — with friends, acquaintances and strangers — were often limited. A study by AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation, for example, noted that almost 3 in 10 women had no social interaction with those outside their household or workplace for up to three months.
As people reconnect, conversations might be stilted. People might forget to make eye contact or feel anxious about being around a group of vaccinated people despite assurances that it poses a low risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Hackbarth says her social circle has “shrunk a lot” since the pandemic began, and it may get even smaller because she suspects most of her friends will be ready to resume social gatherings before she feels comfortable. The self-described introvert worries it'll be uncomfortable to be around others and she'll find social interactions exhausting after a year of being at home during quarantine.
When invitations to socialize start coming in, Hackbarth plans to be the “queen of the redirect,” suggesting smaller gatherings that may not be as taxing.
"I'm OK telling people that ... I'm not ready yet,” she says.
Lockdowns have changed social networks and, in some cases, strained relationships. Researchers at University College London found that 22 percent of adults reported that their friendships had degraded during the pandemic — which might create a barrier when it comes to reaching out.
"Coming out of the pandemic, our interactions are going to be more strained,” says Timothy Levine, chair and distinguished professor of communication at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It'll feel a little awkward at first, but it will become familiar pretty quickly.”
Rather than continuing to isolate once it's safe to gather, Levine suggests being honest about your needs. It's OK to tell friends that you're only getting together one-on-one, outdoors or continuing to wear masks if that eases your anxiety about reengaging in social interactions.
Ease into social life
While you might feel excited about getting back out into the world of dinners, celebrations and meet-ups, don't pack your social calendar too soon, warns Aderonke Pederson, M.D., a psychiatrist and instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Instead of parties and weekend trips, start with coffee.
"There is going to be a temptation to try to snap right back into our normal routines,” she says. “We're not robots; we can't switch back with an on-off switch."
Even brief social interactions with the best of friends might feel exhausting at first. For the past year, people have been on high alert, warned to avoid others and to avoid crowds or large groups of people. Pederson warns that the emotional toll of quarantine-induced social anxiety could cause you to burn out on social interactions faster than usual.
"It's so important for us to be patient with ourselves and the people around us. … We need to pace ourselves through this process,” Pederson adds. “Burnout and the risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety come with trying to force yourself into a certain state of being when the emotional toll [of the pandemic] is very real."
Psychologist Robin Smith, author of Inspirational Vitamins: A Guide to Personal Empowerment who was therapist-in-residence on The Oprah Winfrey Show, refers to the pandemic as a form of trauma. In those initial social interactions, she encourages perseverance, adding, “We can't assume that how we were a year ago is how we'll be today."
Smith calls it “courageous” to venture back into social interactions.
"Vaccines have come out and people are excited … but a year in hiding, cloistered away, has taken its toll,” she says. “We need to be kind and gentle and soft with ourselves and with other people as we reenter” social interactions.
Poornima Apte, 55, practiced self-described “COVID absolutism” over the past year, limiting contact with friends. She turned the garage of her Walpole, Massachusetts, home into an outdoor living room where she could meet with friends (mostly) outdoors while wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.
The infrequent in-person social interactions coupled with texting and lots of Zoom gatherings helped Apte combat loneliness and stay in touch with friends, but she admits, “A few friends fell off the radar and it was — and continues to be — difficult.”
Although Apte compares the return to pre-pandemic social interactions with “being told to jump from a fast-moving train without any safety net,” she is looking forward to seeing loved ones again — but she's not rushing to make plans. “It definitely feels daunting to go back to activities as normal,” she says. “Trying to figure out the new rules is going to be hard, and I hope my friends patiently wait for me on the other side."
5 Tips for Successful Social Interactions
Before making plans with a friend, ask about their comfort level with social gatherings: Are they up for a daylong event with a group of friends, or would they prefer to ease in to social interactions with a shorter, one-on-one outing?
"There is a lot of social anxiety that goes along with reentry [and] communication is key,” Smith says. “Ask questions, respect people's answers … and know what you want yourself and be able to convey that to others."
2. Don't shy away from awkward moments
You reach out for a hug; your friend steps back. There are lots of pauses in the conversation during lunch. Your social skills may be little rusty after a year of quarantine, and initial interactions might not be smooth, Levine says.
Don't be so embarrassed by an awkward encounter that you are afraid to try again. If you were talking on top of someone else, forgot to make eye contact or ran out of things to say, remember that it takes practice to get your social mojo back.
And if there's a pause in conversation, remember to ask questions about the other person's life and practice your listening skills. That's always a good way to keep the chatter going.
3. Extend grace to others
On the flip side, if you meet up with a friend you haven't seen in a while and the conversation seems one-sided and their interactions aren't as effortless as your remember, don't judge harshly. Give people a pass at first.
"For a lot of us, acclimation will be quick,” Levine says. “Until then, offer people a little more grace."
4. Listen to your body
The pandemic has taken its toll on mental and physical health. Social isolation is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression and early death from all causes in older adults — and communities of color are at higher risk, according to AARP research. If you're feeling unwell, find social interactions especially stressful, or notice changes in mood or behavior, make an appointment with your doctor.
5. Don't give up
When a social interaction doesn't go well, don't shred your social calendar and retreat into isolation. Realize that for many people, that social muscle is rusty. “We have to normalize that no one is doing OK from the pandemic,” Smith says. “It's courageous to try again."
Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.
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