Alone Together: Our Connections During the COVID-19 Pandemic

connected

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen eruptions of protests in a few pockets of the United States, as people demanded their country be “re-opened” — letting people go back to their daily routines — for things that we didn’t miss much before — but now seem like distant memories after several months of social distancing. This isn’t exactly a smart thing to request during the pandemic, in which coronavirus cases continue to rise throughout the country, but it’s also not surprising that there are people feeling this way — even if they make up a small minority of a population that overwhelmingly believes we need to keep sheltering in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.

It’s partly because we have a natural drive for social connections — something that played a critical role in how our species evolved and was able to advance so substantially in the first place. We try to make up for the lack of human contact with things like Zoom conferencing, chat rooms, or synchronized Netflix parties where we can watch a new show together with a few good friends. The question for experts is — are these as effective as interacting face to face?

The Brain By Its Lonesome

When you grab a cup of coffee with a friend, there’s a few things happening under the surface that we don’t realize. It’s probably an event you’ve looked forward to for the last few days, regardless of how trivial it might be in the long run with other obligations you have, but you’re experiencing feelings akin to intrinsic joy. The subcortical regions of our brain, like the ventral striatum, which has a role in processing our feelings of motivation, become active whenever we are given monetary or social rewards — even if it’s just our paycheck at the end of the week or just a small and ordinary routine you’ve set up with a friend.

Feelings of loneliness and rejection, however, activate the brain regions associated with our feelings of distress and rumination. We’ve often suspected this to be the work of evolution — pushing us to maintain the social connections that will help us survive. Lonelier individuals tend to fixate on negative outcomes more than normal, and find themselves analyzing the intentions of the people around them — a pattern that could lead to worse periods of isolation and deeper feelings of loneliness.

I’m not just speaking for everyone though — you might prefer a small ritual like meeting up with one friend every few days, or you might consider yourself more of an extrovert — the type of person who’s more likely to host weekend parties and frequently seeks out large social gatherings. They typically have a larger network of people to draw from and report loneliness much less often. Times like this could make things more difficult for the extrovert, however, as they have to limit the degree of physical contact they have with friends and neighbors, as they too confront loneliness, itself a threat to our mental and physical well-being that may even be indicative of our own mortality.

So what’s the best way to deal with the loneliness and isolation? Probably the best way to start is to stop yourself and take note when you find yourself thinking distorted thoughts. If you’ve been living in isolation for awhile, you might for example, find yourself believing that your friends are no longer interested in hearing from you, particularly if you’ve fallen out of touch for a week or so, when you may not necessarily be the reason that they haven’t reached out. Once you’ve caught yourself thinking this, turn it into a hypothetical rather than establishing it as the reason they haven’t talked to you. In turn, you should seek out the coping strategies that work best for you — such as joining a support group.

Social Networking While Social Distancing

Since these possibilities have gotten a bit more difficult, it often becomes a matter of how we work with them through our social media networks. There’s a reason why emojis have caught on with people, even those who grew up before instant messaging was a thing — they communicate nonverbal cues that we seek out each time we get a message — things like smiley faces replace the gestures we’re used to reading in people we interact with verbally and help us to better understand the context of what’s being said.

Options like face-to-face screen messaging when you talk with friends online may also add something to your experience. One study that compared groups who interact with video chat rather than simply typing words back and forth reported higher sense of social presence in the people who interacted through a screen. Shared activities also seemed to better foster close relationships — so rather than just an informal chat with a friend, maybe you should plan for a multi-person event like a virtual dance party or trivia quiz, in which everyone feels a need to contribute something to the group, replacing the sense of community we’ve all been itching for.

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