Reconnecting in Person After the Pandemic: It’s Complicated

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Common Marmosets

There’s good news for people who are anxious about returning to social situations. Marmosets who were isolated and then re-socialized initially had higher levels of stress, a study showed, but they quickly recovered and became more social.

Social interaction is such a fundamental human need, that without it, we experience cravings that are comparable to hunger and lose cognitive function, according to a recent study of the effects of isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown, published in March in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The pandemic substantially increased the number of Americans who reported feeling lonely, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education last winter — 36 percent of Americans and 61 percent of young adults said they felt “serious loneliness.”

Even so, nearly half of Americans are uneasy about returning to in-person interaction, whether they are vaccinated or not, according to an American Psychological Association study, also published in March.

“How can people be so lonely yet so nervous about refilling their social calendars?” Kareem Clark, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, asked in an article published in The Conversation. It’s because human brains have a kind of social thermostat — called social homeostasis — that helps us regulate social interactions, Clark writes in response.

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Animals have similar brain circuits around social interactions as humans, he adds, and studies have shown that animals — including humans — suffer from anxiety and stress when isolated. Our brains are adaptable, however, and at least one study showed that marmosets who were isolated and then re-socialized initially had higher levels of stress, as measured by cortisol in their bloodstream. They quickly recovered, however, and were more social as they rebounded.

The good news is that just as animals bounce back quickly after short-term isolation, Clark writes, so do humans. His advice: “Power through the nervous elevator chats and pesky brain fog, because ‘un-social distancing’ should reset your social homeostasis very soon.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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