There’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the fact that social skills are like a muscle—you use them or you lose them. One of the clearest ways to see this is to look at extreme examples of isolation: prisoners transitioning out of solitary confinement, soldiers returning from combat, and astronauts returning from a month in space. Interestingly, despite how different these experiences are, research shows that each of these groups experience similar socialization problems as they return.
That’s because people, regardless of introversion or extroversion, are hardwired for socialization. It’s through communication that our ancestors learned to do things like plant a field full of edible plants or chase down a giant bison for food. And it’s because we are hardwired for communication that we suffer when we go too long without it. Studies even show that the negative emotional and physical effects of social isolation are comparable to those related to smoking, obesity, or a lack of exercise.
Many of us are weakening our long-trained social muscles during the pandemic as our interactions dwindle and go virtual, but the good news is that social skills can be exercised, stretched, and honed back into shape. Here are six strategies you can use to strengthen your social muscle during the pandemic:
1. Know how serious social isolation is. Researcher Dr. Craig Haney extensively studied the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners, and found that those prisoners who rebound after solitary confinement are the ones who treat their confinement as a threat to their health and take steps to counteract it. You can adopt this same attitude and approach to your much less serious threat of isolation during the pandemic.
2. Use remote replacements. Prisoners who transitioned effectively out of solitary confinement went out of their way to replace what they lacked socially, like writing letters and journaling. Using remote options, like phones, Zoom, and Slack can help prevent your social muscle from fully degrading. For example, one of the biggest social holes in remote work is the loss of spontaneous interactions, like chatting with people before and after meetings, or stepping into a colleague’s office to catch up on each other’s personal lives. Manufacture some spontaneity in your remote work by collaborating with a coworker on a project using Zoom or spending some time after a one-on-one to chat about anything other than work.
3. Get more in tune with how social isolation affects you. A weakened social muscle affects you in unexpected ways. You may feel hypersensitive to the things people say, more cautious, more self-consciousness, more judgmental, and more fearful of interacting than you would have in the past. Perhaps the scariest thing about losing your socialization muscle is that you can easily misinterpret your own emotional reactions. You may leave a Zoom call feeling anxious or angry and attribute that to yourself (guilt about the work you accomplish remotely) or the other person (they don’t respect my time or work). In reality, you’re feeling frustrated over your isolation and anxious because you’re out of practice.
4. Recognize the ways remote replacements actually hurt you. The lag in videos, disconnection between body language and verbalization, and any other disturbances (even ones we don’t recognize in the moment) require a significant amount of mental energy as your brain attempts to close the gap between what you see and hear and what is really happening. The result is that you often leave calls feeling vaguely disturbed, irritable, and alienated. Knowing this can help you avoid misattributing the way you feel. It can also help you manage your energy and know when you need to step away from your computer to take a break.
5. Do favors for people and expect nothing in return. Doing small favors purely to make someone else feel good is an organic way to build a sense of connectedness and gratitude, even in the remote world.
6. Unplug. So many hours of your day that you devote to your device and your television are hours you’d otherwise be interacting with your family, friends, or roommates. The problem is so serious that one study conducted on children found that there was a direct connection between how many hours kids spent watching television per day and how likely they were to throw tantrums or demonstrate bad behavior in class. The reason? The kids who watched too much television were missing out on development of key social skills. Putting down your devices doesn’t just give you time to recharge from all your electronically expended energy; it literally gives you a chance to look up and connect, even if the people around you are fewer in number.
From Insights to Action. Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson offers a useful story from his childhood about waking up after a night of snow. He would always rush outside and walk a zig-zagging path through the snow to school. As other kids woke up and walked to school, they would inevitably follow his steps. Even though his steps were inefficient, they were the easiest steps to follow through the snow because the path had already been trodden. This story works well as a metaphor for our habits. Once we’ve walked a certain pathway in our brain enough times, we are more and more likely to repeat that path, even if it isn’t the best one. The point is, as you work to pull yourself out of that feeling of isolation, remember that you’re naturally going to want to return to your old habits even if they aren’t the best ones for you. Put these strategies into action to forge positive social and emotional habits while we continue to work at a distance.