Will Hugging Ever Feel Normal Again? And Will Social-Distancing Increase Social Anxiety?

Georgia Aspinall speaks to psychologist Dr Heather Sequeira about how social-distancing could change our social norms...

Woman at home

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

‘So I tried to get to know my neighbours earlier,’ my sister tells me on a Zoom call from her new flat in Manchester. ‘I heard them on the balcony, went out to say hello and then shit myself and ran back in – they must think I’m an absolute headcase.’

My sister is a social butterfly, and so naturally, she’s struggling with social-distancing and self-isolation. But when she tells me this story, I relate. I too have quickly become inept at talking to strangers for no apparent reason. Earlier this week, I went onto my tiny London terrace to fix some flailing laundry only to find my neighbour pottering with his plants, inches from my pyjama-clad self. I ran back in the house without even looking at him.

We’re both from Liverpool and by nature we’re the friendly chat-to-anyone-anytime type, and yet within a couple of weeks of social-distancing, we both seem to have forgotten how to behave in everyday social settings. Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that despite being confident we do both have mild social anxiety, in the same way that many of us have to mentally prepare for human interaction no matter how big or small. Often, I find myself exhausted at the end of the working day just from having to be my most-confident best-self.

In psychology, this is called an ‘introvert hangover’, according to consultant psychologist Dr Heather Sequeira and it’s actually very common. ‘For those of us with introverted tendencies and especially those of us with social anxiety we tend to feel depleted of energy after being around people at work for long periods of time or with family or friends,’ she explains. ‘Especially, if were are trying to be our most confident self all day.’

So what will happen when social-distancing means we’ve been avoiding being our most confidence self for months? How overwhelming will it be to go back to open-plan offices, team meetings and presentations if we can barely handle a friendly hello after a week?

Non-essential physical contact might stay down. It could be that social rituals such as handshakes and hugs will be coloured with anxiety.

‘It’s likely to exacerbate things for people who already struggle with anxiety, social shyness or low confidence because once you stop “battling” against anxieties and putting yourself into social situations that cause you anxiety - the anxiety tends to increase,’ Dr Sequeira says. ‘The more you face your fear or do something that triggers anxiety, the more anxiety abates. Conversely, the less you face your fear, the more it tends to increase.'

‘Even if we would not normally describe ourselves as socially anxious, the fact that we are not out there meeting people is likely to make us less comfortable talking to strangers,’ she adds.

Periods of isolation like this can also trigger previous trauma, Dr. Sequeira explains, such as abandonment or grief issues. ‘These could be reactions that [people] have not experienced for many years,’ she says. ‘Yet under these extreme conditions, these reactions are re-triggered creating further social withdrawal.’

As a result of all of this, Dr Sequeira says it could completely change our social rituals as a society at large moving forward. ‘Non-essential physical contact might stay down,’ she muses. ‘It could be that social rituals such as handshakes, hugs and other physical shows of affection will be coloured with anxiety even after the peak coronavirus period has passed as people may remain tentative or show hesitation in these normal social gestures.'

‘This, in turn, may further exacerbate low confidence or feelings of social connectedness,’ Dr Sequeira explains, ‘because physical touch and gestures have been found in research to moderate or buffer our physiological stress levels. They lower our levels of cortisol – the stress hormone, reduce high heart-beat and also enhance the ‘feel good chemical’ serotonin.

So how do we combat this potential increasing anxiety and maintain our most-confident self when we’re literally forced to stay at home? Well, Dr Sequiera suggests maintaining social closeness as much as possible online.

‘Set up a WhatsApp group with neighbours and family,’ she advises. ‘Make an extra effort to phone someone up when you don’t usually phone them or even actually write somebody a physical letter - the physicality of a letter rather than an email can really help reduce feelings of isolation.’

And even if you feel nervous trying to make conversation with your new neighbour over the balcony, go out and try again. ‘Another really lovely way to have an impact is to carry out everyday simple acts of kindness,’ she says. ‘For example, my neighbour has just left a bowl of hyacinths on my door step. Simple acts of kindness help us feel socially connected even though we are not physically connected.’

Read More:

What It's Like To Navigate Coronavirus When You Suffer From Health Anxiety

Coronavirus: How to Look After Your Mental Health During Lockdown

Why Am I Having Such Vivid And Scary Dreams During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

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