As we approach the year mark of our collective social isolation, the impacts are clear. We are starved for connection - physically, mentally, and emotionally. We have endured a collective trauma with far reaching impacts, and many of us may have indeed forgotten what it’s like to be a social being. Humans are not wired for social isolation. We are wired for connection.
Our ability to socially connect with others is a defining characteristic of our species. While social isolation can certainly teach us a lot about our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we learn so much about ourselves through our interactions with others. It can be easy to forget about this innate social wiring, as we have adapted to a new normal and replaced in person interactions with virtual interactions. While technology can be a wonderful tool to support social connections when we can’t be together, there is no replacement for the face to face, skin to skin, heart to heart interactions that define our social nature.
The face to face, skin to skin, heart to heart interactions that define our social nature provides our bodies with boosts of important neuro-chemicals like serotonin. When we see someone in person that we recognize and trust, serotonin is released resulting in positive effects on our immune systems and brains. Without access to the feel-good chemicals associated with social interactions, we are more susceptible to depressive episodes and long term stress.
Social isolation that goes on for too long is associated with the presence of a molecule called tachykinin, which can make us feel fearful and paranoid, and can impair our immune systems. Essentially, this molecule is our brain and body telling us that we’re not spending enough time with people we trust or engaging in things that bring us joy.
The social isolation we have collectively experienced has impacted us all in unique ways. Perhaps you have been completely alone and isolated for the past year. Perhaps you have been stuck with the same people for a year, and are eager for a break or some variety. Perhaps you have been able to stay in touch with loved ones with virtual communication, or maybe you have struggled to maintain relationships without in-person interactions. Perhaps you felt socially isolated, neglected, or rejected long before the rest of the world. No matter what your experience has been during this time, returning to a socially connected life may be challenging.
So how do we move forward into this newly unfolding chapter of social connection? Slowly. Gently. Incrementally. While the way we were thrust into our social hibernation was certainly not slow or gentle, as we re-emerge, we can have compassion for ourselves and others by allowing ourselves time to step back into our social natures. With a gentle understanding that developing and maintaining social connections takes effort, time, and flexibility, we can support each other into a brighter and more socially connected future, one social interaction at a time.