Feel out of practice talking to people in person? You're not the only one

At a loss for words when a cashier tries to make small talk at the shop? Struggling to remember how much eye contact is too much when you meet up with someone in your bubble?

Welcome to the club.

Aside from protecting us from coronavirus, the importance of which cannot be overstated, lockdown has brought its fair share of side effects.

The stress of constantly changing restrictions, economic uncertainty, being apart from loved ones and friends and, of course, fear of the virus itself all run the risk of causing an epidemic of mental health problems in the years ahead.

It has also meant that many of us are seeing our friendships shift from afar and, for better or worse, drift into uncharted territory.

Many of us have relied on virtual hangouts and digital messaging services to stay connected but, needless to say, that’s very different to actually being around people.

This is all to say that, if you’ve been finding in-person socialisation more challenging since the first lockdown, you’re not alone.

Licensed psychotherapist and mental health expert Noel McDermott tells us ‘a number of people’ have reported feeling this way along with ‘reports of people and children displaying agoraphobic type reactions to people.’ 

He says: ‘There is a lot of evidence of anxiety and avoidance issues in the population at large.’

Noel adds: ‘This is a combination of falling out of practice in terms of socialising, but also experiencing fear of infection.’ 

For the time being, other than people we live with, our social bubbles, and one-on-one exercise buddies, our ability to socialise has been limited to talking through a screen, and Counselling Directory member Philip Karahassan tells us we may need some time to bounce back from that.

He explains: ‘We have all had to adapt and change and for some of us, we have not had access to anyone physically for nearly a year without a sense of anxiety and fear of close contact (due to contracting or passing on the virus).

‘I have been seeing people online during this period, but I could feel a difference in a session when seeing someone in person rather than just online. 

‘Seeing someone physically in front of me (rather than just their head and shoulders on my screen) brought about a connection that I had not felt since lockdown/the tier system began.

‘So when things start getting back to normal we may need some time to readjust as there is a different level of emotional connection in the physicality of the meeting.’

Dr Daria Kuss, professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, tells us that people we appear to be better at keeping in touch with online are the ones who live further afield. This could well be because we’re used to digital relationships with them from before the pandemic.

She says: ‘Enforced periods of remaining at home such as those experienced during the national lockdowns can have detrimental impacts on mental health and wellbeing, leading to social isolation due to very limited opportunities of social interaction outside of the people one lives with.

‘Research by Dr Bower from the University of Sydney and Dr Patuly, University of Wollogong, shows that the pandemic is changing people’s social circles in that people tend to interact with smaller social groups now in comparison to the social contacts they had before the pandemic.

‘Most social interaction has now moved online – Skype and Zoom calls have replaced weekly get-togethers. Interestingly, this online contact appears to include more of those individuals with whom people maintain online relationships, such as people living further away (in hometowns, other countries).

‘Contact to those people with whom there used to be day to day relationships (such as enjoying a hobby together, etc.) has decreased.

‘This is an indication that online socialising is bringing together friends and family across geographical boundaries, particularly in the present day and age where physical social get-togethers are often limited to support bubbles and engaging in a socially distanced physical activity outdoors with one member of another household.’

As for when lockdown and the pandemic are both behind us, Noel expects a ‘roaring 20s’, saying: ‘After the 1918 pandemic we had the roaring 20s in which people made up for the lack of socialising. We are likely to see something similar this time as well.’ 

In the meantime, what can people do to get back on the socialisation horse?

Noel says: ‘The basic rule at play here is exposure.

‘When we pull away from things we set up a vicious circle whereby our minds label those things as bad.

‘We then pull away from them more and so it goes. With social contact we have to challenge this dynamic.

‘The simplest way is to tell people you are struggling and ask for help. We are all struggling and helping each other makes us feel better.’ 

 Philip recommends: ‘Take it slow and when you do start to socialise, notice how you feel. Just because others feel OK doesn’t mean that you have to be.

‘I think there will be a sense of excitement and freedom which many will feel they have to mirror and abide to but that doesn’t mean you should feel the same. Respect your own process.

‘When we could socialise more, I have been telling my clients to set clear boundaries with others they were meeting

‘For example,

  • ‘Have an idea what you would like to do. 
  • ‘Meet someone that shares the same point of view and that you can trust.
  • ‘Set boundaries so both parties know how long they will be out for.
  • ‘Tell the other your feelings, if you feel anxious tell that person you are getting used to things.
  • ‘If it gets too much don’t be scared to leave.

‘It’s about feeling in control, empowered and safe in that setting.

‘Don’t feel you have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with – even if they feel OK, you don’t need to feel the same.’

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