Navigating a new normal for social interaction
People around the world have limited their social interactions for months to combat the spread of coronavirus. While some enjoy the downtime and avoiding social gatherings, others are yearning to spend time with friends, family and colleagues in-person. Whether you feel comfortable in a social setting or not, social interaction requires practice for all, and according to a Baylor College of Medicine expert, many people will struggle getting back to their regular social routine.
“For all of us, social interaction is a skill, and while some are naturally better at it than others, we can all get rusty. It’s comparable to what happens to the skill level of top athletes or musicians when they don’t practice,” said Dr. Jessica Rohr, assistant professor chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.
Many are either naturally comfortable in social situations, or receive good instructions from their parents and friends throughout their childhood. Those who naturally thrive in social situations feel less anxiety around others, less distracted by their own fears, they don’t ruminate and are comfortable being spontaneous with unexpected situations.
“Some people are born with the skills and don’t need as much training. Some people are born without a high level of natural ability – but get good training growing up,” Rohr said.
Tips for extroverts
Rohr cautions people to not let their emotional urgency to reconnect with others overcome the health guidelines for what will keep everyone safest. Strive to maintain relationships without meeting in person. People can have virtual meetups without a purpose, just as you would while visiting with friends. Prop up your phone for a FaceTime or Zoom call while you eat dinner and converse the same way you would if you were face-to-face.
Even those who have a natural skill for social interactions may struggle with getting back on track socially after weeks of isolation. Rohr recommends practicing being mindful of their social interactions and allowing space for other people to speak and be engaged. It can be easy for more extroverted people to take over in social interactions, especially when they’ve been isolated and are yearning for contact with other people; however, it is as important for extroverted people to practice listening and leaving space for others as it is for introverted people to practice leaning in to conversations and working through anxiety so they can connect.
Tips for introverts
Some feel at peace with the quarantine and enjoy spending time at home, limiting social interactions. Many may feel both social anxiety and exhaustion in social situations. Even if the quiet time has been enjoyable, even preferable, social support is still very important. People who suffer from social anxiety want to avoid social interaction. When you avoid doing things that make you anxious, you feel that you made the right decision since you feel a sense of relief – but the more you avoid, the more anxiety increases.
“There are some things where you have to be willing to endure the anxiety or pain because they’re important for your life. Even when you’re being told to stay home and limit contact, it’s really important to make the effort to try to connect with people virtually or on the phone, so you’re not avoiding all social interactions,” Rohr said. “Set goals for who you’re talking to and try calling new people to get through that difficulty of talking on the phone. It’s something to be very purposeful and mindful of.”
As the social distancing orders lift in different parts of the country, it can feel overwhelming for this group of people to jump back into regular social situations, including going back to the office or meeting for dinner. Rohr recommends “coping ahead” in these situations. This means acknowledging that it will be difficult and anxiety-provoking ahead of time, so the nerves you feel are expected rather than surprising, which can lead to avoidance. She also recommends realizing that anxiety is normal when things are new, and to not let it convince you to avoid engaging. Only continued practice will reduce the anxiety.
Certain populations are suffering differently throughout this period of social isolation. For those who have more knowledge and comfort with technology, reaching out to those who are more introverted or less knowledgeable with technology is very important. Be clear and candid, and practice being open with others over video chats or the phone to maintain relationships.