Does anyone else feel like they’ve lost the ability to interact? The multitude of conversations I’ve been having in my head seem to translate poorly when spoken aloud. Even brief attempts at socialization have left me uncertain, recounting each comment I’ve made, each impression left. Is it possible to grow rusty in your communication with other humans?
Growing up on the prairie, it wasn’t hard to find time alone. Walking out the front door and over a small hill removed my home and its occupants from view. I could later be found in a quiet spot, disappearing into the welcoming pages of my favorite book. I’m sure I had moments of social grace, but they never matched the script I created in my young mind. I was rarely lonely, however, with this world of fiction surrounding me.
Unlike those solo moments in my childhood, the massive experiment of separation and isolation during the pandemic has certainly created aching loneliness for many. My paternal grandmother spends most days awaiting visitors, though for many months even one guest was forbidden. Speaking to her on the phone is difficult because I can’t promise to visit anytime soon. We share memories, laugh about the silly phrases my sons uttered that week, and try to connect in the only way available.
When I feel particularly sad after these moments, I replay snippets of our conversation, wishing I could have said the “right thing” to soften her isolation. I never find the perfect phrase, but I vow to keep trying regardless. Better to hear each other’s voices than face the oppressive silence of our mutual confinement.
In addition to our loneliness, many more of us can now empathize with sufferers of social anxiety disorder. Individuals with this illness struggle through a disabling fear of interacting in groups, novel situations, or other settings where they may be judged negatively. Months spent restricted to our protective quarantine, despite a strong desire to see others, mirrors the pain of those who are deeply lonely but too anxious to engage. Their avoidance of social events, or participation only through significant distress, can hinder their education, career and, most potently, meaningful relationships.
Treating this illness involves partnering with patients to design increasingly challenging exposure exercises. They could begin, for instance, by making a phone call to schedule a doctor’s appointment, and advance to asking a new love interest on a first date. Understandably, along the way they learn to live with some discomfort, recognizing it as a necessary hurdle to overcome before reaching their goals.
Raised by a family of teachers and physicians, I was taught to share my understanding or experiences with others in a helpful way. Throughout this pandemic, though, I’ve recognized that reaching out was healing for me as well. Whether in my sessions with patients, writing an essay to an imagined reader, or during a painfully awkward attempt to chat with the grocery store clerk, moments of connection are sustaining.
We will all need to endure discomfort as we re-enter society in the coming months. As I told a patient (and myself, honestly), “Life will reopen, and we will all feel a little self-conscious interacting with the outside world.” As with many forms of anxiety, however, relief will come when we are brave enough to risk repeated exposure to that dreaded activity. So if you say something you find embarrassing your first trip out, don’t hesitate to give it another try. It will certainly get easier.