I've Really Missed People, but Has COVID Made Us Socially Awkward?

·10 min read
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For more than a year, many of us have felt alone, together. And no matter if our professions kept us home or on the front lines of the pandemic, I think we've all dealt with losing the daily rhythms, freedoms, and lifestyles that collectively defined us. Early in the pandemic, therapists reported an urgent rush of mental health crises in the midst of such swift change, isolation, and grief. We found ourselves craving lighthearted office banter, harmless gossip over fizzy cocktails, and first-date butterflies more than ever. Perhaps we didn't realize how much we valued a friendly smile in an elevator or the sound of a barista shouting our latte order from across a noisy cafe.

Since COVID-19 gripped America, it's been a ruthless, scary, and consequential year, rife with economic upheaval, a tumultuous presidential election, and a string of abominable incidents that yanked us into long-overdue conversations about racism and police violence. The coronavirus pandemic left us fumbling with our uncertainties about the future from the privacy of our homes, feeling a lifetime away from many of the people we love most. There's no question that the sudden, dispiriting changes that swept across our communities and social infrastructures have since dug their roots into our internal landscapes, too. In fact, the data has become clear: scientists have tracked a massive surge in depression.

You might have a knee-jerk reaction to withdraw sharply when someone goes to hug you. If so, this is a byproduct of your highly plastic brain having been trained to protect you from COVID over the past year but is something you have the agency to rescript with time.

So as the world slowly begins to reopen, it raises an important question: after having spent so much time away from each other, falling in or out of love behind screens, logging into Zoom to celebrate a milestone birthday with friends, being counseled and consoled through apps, and keeping at least six feet of distance while roaming the produce aisle, what if it feels weird to engage with each other in real life again?

Some of us may have begun to romanticize our post-COVID realities, imagining that it'll be akin to the wild and glamorous revelry of the Roaring '20s - when fashion sent hemlines higher and mass consumerism spawned many of the iconic brand-name foods we know today. "This summer is going to be lit!" one of my friends said to me recently after I recited some items from my overzealous post-COVID bucket list. But as the vaccine numbers continue to rise and America's case numbers go down, allowing more American cities to swing open their social doors, others are grappling with mixed emotions about postpandemic reentry.

"I've missed people so much, but now that it's getting safer to be in public, I don't feel fun anymore," a friend who was briefly hospitalized for COVID-19 last summer told me. "Sometimes I have panic attacks when I leave my house." Another friend said, "I went on my first in-person date since COVID a month ago, and I was super awkward. I've totally forgotten how to flirt." A third friend confessed to using her virtual identity as a crutch: "Since working from my living room for over a year, my social anxiety has gotten so bad that I avoid eye contact when I go anywhere. I dread the day that I won't be logging into Zoom for weekly presentations."

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If you also fear that parts of your personality or your sense of ease with in-person mingling have wandered into isolation, we called upon the experts to explore ways that we might not yet realize we've changed, with guidance for how to be compassionate with ourselves and each other as we reenter the world. Because after the year-plus that we've had, it's safe to say we deserve a celebration.

Dr. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360, said that as we slowly transition back into a pre-COVID pulse of life, we should prepare ourselves for some level of awkwardness and bouts of self-consciousness. "Typically it takes three to six months to form a habit, and this includes behavioral and thought habits," he told POPSUGAR. "You've likely been masking, social distancing, and closely following the reports for more than a year now, so your brain is naturally going to stop you from doing certain things you may have once done on a daily basis."

In other words, you might have a knee-jerk reaction to withdraw sharply when someone goes to shake your hand or hug you, or you might find your heart pounding anxiously upon being sandwiched in between other commuters on the subway. If so, this is a byproduct of your highly plastic brain having been trained to protect you from COVID over the past year but is something you have the agency to rescript with time.

Therapist Arien Conner, LCSW, and owner of Clear Path Counseling, said that, in the midst of our social reawakening, when we notice that someone appears uncomfortable, we might pause to give them empathy and patience within their respective comfort level. Because while humans are a profoundly adaptive and resilient species, there's no way for any of us to grasp what the next person has moved through emotionally during the pandemic. It may even be that we've yet to fully process our own rebirth.

"With few opportunities for socializing and outward distraction, we've each had a huge mirror held up in front of us," she told POPSUGAR. "This means time to overanalyze ourselves, our relationships, our past experiences, and our roles within humanity. We saw, in a way we'd possibly never seen before, who aligned with our values and who didn't - who supported us and who felt absent or dismissive. That changes a person."

Terri Cole, psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free, agreed, stressing that we must also keep in mind that not everyone's pandemic experience felt safe, nor has it been everyone's ability to keep their job or business afloat or maintain sanity as a parent in the disorienting throes of remote learning. "For some, their lockdown experience was hell in every way possible. For others, it was the transformative pause that they needed but never would have given themselves," she explained. "We need to be mindful that our experience might look nothing like our colleague's or neighbor's."

Make no mistake about it: since the pandemic, we've each tumbled into parts of ourselves that we've likely yet to totally process and unpack.

There are people who lost loved ones and people whose decades-old grief was suddenly unearthed - their loved one's absence more vivid and pressing in the wake of such cataclysmic uncertainty. People who realized their relationship was a lie and people who realized their relationship was a treasure they'd been undervaluing. People who saw their once-thriving business being swept clean and people who realized they couldn't wait another day to monetize their ideas. The first-time parents who were forced to present their newborn babies to loved ones through a protective glass and the couple who wept in each other's arms when forced to cancel their IVF transfer. Also the healthcare workers who watched the world slam to a halt while they suddenly found themselves whizzing at full speed.

Make no mistake about it: since the pandemic, we've each tumbled into parts of ourselves that we've likely yet to totally process and unpack.

On a cheerful note, most experts have witnessed profound revelations, too. For some individuals, the pandemic pointed them toward power they didn't know they had. "When we have a traumatic event, the village gets burned down, which presents the massive opportunity for growth," Cole said. "So for people who've long suffered from the disease to please, the urgency of COVID has forced them to learn how to set boundaries. Those who weren't able to speak up for themselves or who tolerated things that made them uncomfortable have decided they aren't willing to please others over themselves anymore."

Conner echoed a similar observation: "In my practice, I work mostly with women, and many of them started the pandemic by setting clear, firm boundaries around COVID for their immediate family's safety. Then, after months of this, I saw them develop strong, almost uncomfortable realizations around ways they've been settling in relationships and ways they desire to be more satisfied in their lives."

And there's been an interesting jolt to our dating paradigms as well. Logan Ury, Hinge's director of relationship science, said she and her team are predicting a relationship renaissance in the coming year. "We found that the tremendous self-reflection experienced in the pandemic led Hinge users to reassess their priorities in love," she told POPSUGAR. "According to our most recent research, 75 percent of Hinge daters are no longer looking for something casual but seeking a meaningful relationship - even prioritizing a healthy dating life above work, family, and friends."

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So if you find yourself embarrassingly chatty and giddy, whether on a first date or upon returning to the office with your coworkers, give yourself some grace. Because while humans are biologically wired to be in relationships and will never forget how to be social ("It's like riding a bike," Cole said), Dr. Gilliland believes that awkward enthusiasm is a fantastic sign. "When we're doing something exciting that we haven't done in a long time or we find ourselves in the company of someone we've missed, we get massive surges of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin," he said. "This seemingly goofy reaction is joy, happiness, and meaningful connection on a biological level. We can definitely expect some of that, and we should embrace it, enjoy it, and even laugh about it."

But before you let yourself be swept away by the excitement, fold this gently into your mind: your post-COVID life might look startlingly different from your pre-COVID life. You might discover that your favorite sushi spot has boarded its windows or that your beloved manicurist moved across the coast to be near family. Or, perhaps, that while your favorite cycling studio is gorgeously lit up and properly sanitized, only half of the patrons look familiar. The reality is that the pulse of life and the freedoms we cherished were lost, and while they're in the process of being victoriously restored, they aren't being restored to quite the same world. In such cases, let yourself grieve.

Dr. Gilliland stressed that, regardless of the ways you might be stumbling through your own social revival, you mustn't let yourself be seduced by the option of a continued virtual life. Because sitting down at a table with people - real, in-the-flesh people, not virtual mirages of people - is essential to your well-being. "Studies show that, when humans are isolated, they lose their psychological and physical health," he said. "If you look at the history of humans, across the poorest to the wealthiest of countries, we thrive in community. And that's what we have to fight for and be willing to feel a little awkward for. Because human community is not a luxury but a biological necessity."

So once your city opens up and you feel it's safe to roam about it, slide on your most fabulous attire and venture out for a swanky happy hour with your friends. Perhaps wander into a cozy poetry reading or trivia night. If your budget permits, sign up for the cycling class, even if you don't recognize anyone in the room. Say "yes" to meeting that potential love interest at a corner booth for coffee. Because while there will no doubt be a period of awkward adjustment and past-life grief to navigate, your psychological and physical health depend upon it.