Call It 'Socially Awkward' Or 'Pandemic-Weird,' But We're All Suffering From It

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Maybe you’ve overshared on Zoom lately. Maybe you’re embroiled in a he-said, she-said with a family member. Maybe you’re overly angry, or irritable, or anxious. Maybe it’s easier not to talk to people. Maybe it’s easier not to deal with social situations. Maybe Netflix looks a whole lot better than a Zoom party with your friends. Basically, we’ve all gone pandemic-weird, according to The New York Times: we’re suffering from the social unease and awkwardness that comes with long periods of isolation.

I’m no stranger to going pandemic-weird.

I’m overly anxious. I worry about everything: breathless, heart-hammering, stomach-clenching worry. My husband and I have a joke: every little symptom of any type of allergy (and it’s ragweed season) convinces us we have COVID-19. “You don’t have COVID,” we assure each other over and over. Stomach ache? COVID. Sore throat from snoring? COVID. Runny nose with no other symptoms whatsoever? COVID.

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I’m also super-awkward with friends—more than usual. I can’t tell when it’s my turn to talk during a Zoom call. A friend’s chance comment may leave me puzzling for day: what did she mean? Does she still like me? Sometimes it’s easier to stay off Facebook and Twitter and Messenger and every other social media format, ignoring everyone, including my own family. When forced to interact, I get anxious and jumpy.

Pandemic-Weird Is Pandemic-Normal

The New York Times says that research on people who’ve spent extended times alone, like hermits, astronauts, or prisoners, shows that without constant exercise, our social skills wither. NASA says of the planned mission to Mars, “The more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioral or cognitive conditions, and psychiatric disorders.” Basically, we’re hardwired to go pandemic-weird, losing social skills and the ability to read subtle social cues, as well developing things like diagnosable anxiety.

We’ve long known that solitary confinement is unethical, with the former head of the corrections department in Colorado calling it “immoral” and “torture” to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. People in solitary confinement, who have no stimulation—some may watch TV or listen to the radio, but they’re denied visitors—can go outside for about 1.5 hours a day in a bare concrete area. While this is obviously far more harsh than what we’re suffering during the pandemic, research on these inmates has shown that “This environment can be psychologically destructive for anyone who enters and endures it for significant periods of time, particularly those with preexisting psychiatric disorders.” People risk “profound and chronic alienation” and “asociality”—i.e., they never want to be around people.

So if we’re becoming a little bit anxious, starting to feel like human contact isn’t worth it, or having trouble reading people—it’s no surprise. We’re going pandemic-weird. And that’s 100% normal for humans.

But I’m Fine…

You’re probably not. You’re probably pandemic-weird. You just don’t realize it.

Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, tells The New York Times that being lonely or isolated is as much of a biological signal as being hungry. Our brain interpret it as “a mortal threat,” and when we don’t interact with people, it leads to “negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects.” Even if you’re holed up with the fam, you’re missing out on vital interactions with other people: casual talk with coworkers and interactions with strangers at Starbucks.

The New York Times mentions, “Many of us have not met anyone new for months.”

My brain said “but the internet.” I realized the internet didn’t count and cried. I’m totally pandemic-weird.

So How Do We Deal With Being Pandemic-Weird?

Space and grace, people. Space and grace.

We need to realize that this is happening, first of all: every one of us is going through a significant experience, and no one is going to come out the same on the other end: values-wise or personality-wise, says The New York Times. So be ready for people to change— don’t expect that when this ends, everything’s going to return to situation normal. Those are the people, says British physician Beth Healey, who spent a year on a remote part of Antarctica, who do the worst when they try to reintegrate.

On the other hand, the people who recover best from being pandemic-weird are those who spend their time in isolation reaching out to others. The prisoners in solitary confinement who fared best afterwards were those who realized the isolation “a serious threat to their sense of self and security” and reached out to other people.

In other words, if you want to stave off that pandemic-weirdness, you’d better consider taking that Zoom call.

We’re worried about kids. But we should also be worried about ourselves. “Social interplay,” The New York Times says, is one of the most complicated things we’re wired to do. So don’t expect much from other people in the next… while. Realize we’ve all gone pandemic-weird: we’ve been through a serious length of social confinement that’s changed us in a fundamental way, and we’re still finding our feet in social situations. Be tolerant of others and realize that no, they probably don’t hate you. But extend yourself the same grace as well.

You’ve gone pandemic-weird. It’s okay. We all have.

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