Does the thought of heightened levels of social stimulation after lockdown fill you with apprehension? You could be suffering from social atrophy.
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Today, we’re going to look at social atrophy and provide you with Helpful a 5-point plan so you’re in a better position to navigate the easing of lockdown.
While nothing is set in stone, it is expected that UK lockdown restrictions will have eased by June 21st, 2021. By then, if everything goes to plan with the vaccine rollout, we will see all legal limits on social contact will be removed. That’s according to the government’s own roadmap to cautiously ease lockdown restrictions.
Likewise other countries are also in various stages of easing restrictions. Iceland, for example, is opening up theatres and in Switzerland 15 people can now meet outside. In Australia people were even able to celebrate Mardi-Gras in a Covid managed way.
Impact of reduced socialisation
Lack of social contact for more or less a whole year will have caused our social skills and stamina levels to have atrophied from lack of use. As restrictions are lifted and you begin to socialise more with your friends and family, there is a chance you may struggle as a result of a sharp increase in social stimulation.
As psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Bober explains in this video, as human beings, we are wired for social connection. When we don’t have that feeling of safety it puts us on a heightened state of alert, increasing the chances of us developing a mental illness like anxiety, as well as impact our physical health. The news clip includes this quote from The New York Times.
Indeed, research involving hermits, astronauts, soldiers and other individuals who have experienced extended periods of isolation highlights how social stamina and skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use.
There’s also a growing body of research reported in this article in the journal The Scientist showing how social isolation can affect your ability to think and even increase risk of inflammation
What is Social Atrophy?
We first looked at the concept of social atrophy in a blog last year (here). That blog has proved to be extremely popular, which is why we thought we’d revisit the topic again today. As the COVID-19 lockdown eases, you’re going to need to be prepared for the sudden increase of social stimulation you’ll be experiencing.
Now you’ve probably heard of muscle atrophy. It’s when muscles waste away because they’re not being used. It often happens to patients who have reduced mobility or don’t get much physical activity.
Social Atrophy is similar, but it refers to when our social stamina and social skills become diminished (atrophied) because we aren’t using them as much as we usually do — like now during the ongoing lockdown situation.
This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. It’s a natural consequence of what’s been going on. However, as lockdown eases and we begin to start returning to our normal lives, our levels of social atrophy will become apparent. It can be confusing and even scary when we don’t know why this is happening.
Why does Social Atrophy matter?
Activities going to a noisy pub or meeting up with friends and family will cause us to experience more social stimulation than we’ve been used to for a while. As a result, you’ll likely feel unusual bouts of tiredness, difficulty thinking clearly, possibly headaches and maybe you’ll find you’re less tolerant of others. All of this can be detrimental to your mood, your thinking, your body and your relationships with other people.
You may not realise it, but it takes a lot of energy and focus to process social stimulation, such as different voices and noises. If you’ve ever experienced ill health, you’ll likely have some sense of this, but if you haven’t, it can come as a surprise and can feel disconcerting.
Fortunately, in the same way that muscle atrophy can usually be reversed through exercise, training and physiotherapy, social atrophy too can be turned around. But if you don’t know this is what’s going on, you can’t address it.
What is Social Stamina?
Interestingly there isn’t much research about this topic (or social atrophy for that matter) but this is how we define social stamina: the energy and capacity you have for engaging in social interactions for a duration of time. It’s like your social budget or bank account.
Now this is slightly different from our normal stamina and abilities to complete day-to-day tasks. Social stamina relates specifically to social situations and stimulation. Even if you have lots of energy and feel good, if your social stamina is depleted or atrophied to below normal levels, you’ll likely find that social stimulation tires you out faster than it did when you were socially fit and strong.
Interestingly, your personality trait — specifically whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert — also has an impact on how social stimulation affects you. While introverts are often drained by social stimulation, extroverts are more likely to be nourished by it. Which are you? Take this into account as you plan to reverse your social atrophy.
What are Social Skills?
In addition to social stamina, your social skills will also probably have atrophied during lockdown. Remaining calm when in social situations, making eye contact when you talk to someone and taking turns in a conversation are all examples.
But the ongoing lockdown will have meant you haven’t had a chance to use such skills for months. As a result, you’ll likely be a little rusty when you next find yourself in a social situation. This could lead to social interactions feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
The magazine Psychology Today has an informative article about social skills if you’d like to know more.
How do I know if I’m suffering from Social Atrophy?
So how do you know if you’re suffering from social atrophy?
Tiredness is usually the key indicator. So if you find that social situations and stimulation leave you feeling abnormally tired — especially if they didn’t before — you’re likely suffering from social atrophy.
Likewise, if you find yourself actively avoiding social situations and the thought of social stimulation makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re almost certainly suffering with social atrophy.
You may find that you struggle to start a conversation or that you feel clumsy. You may even find yourself sharing personal information you hadn’t intended to share. This is often referred to as oversharing and can leave you feeling exposed or vulnerable.
Finally, you may also feel overwhelmed when faced with social situations. Situations that before you would have found easy and even welcomed now can feel burdensome or complicated.
These experiences can lead to feelings of frustration (with both yourself and others), as well as feelings like guilt if you find yourself prioritising one friend or group over another.
Bear in mind that this is different than if you struggled with social anxiety before the pandemic. The information and tools here can help ease social anxiety but additional support may be needed.
How to reverse Social Atrophy – The 5-point plan
To put you in the best possible position as lockdown eases to reverse social atrophy, we’ve compiled this helpful 5-point plan:
1. Realistic expectations
When it comes to reversing social atrophy, it’s important to have realistic expectations. It’ll take you some time to regain your social stamina and agility in terms of your social skills.
How long have you had reduced social contact? When it’s in terms of days and weeks there’s a 1:1 ratio rule of thumb. In other words, it takes a day to recover from a day and a week to recover from a week (as per my recent retreat experience).
When it comes to months and years it’s more like 1:1/2 so if it’s been 12 months, chances are it’ll take you at about six months to get back up to full speed.
Reminding yourself that you’re not as socially fit as you were before all this started helps to manage your own expectations, as well as other people’s.
2. Pacing is important
Just like it’s not helpful to hit the gym day in, day out, so it is with social stimulation. Pace your social activity across days and weeks allowing rest times in between. Alternate types of social activities, like you would alternate exercises in the gym.
Start for example, with meeting in a small group for a short time, like a couple or few hours. Then build up to a whole weekend together or expand to a bigger group. Cross talk (that’s when people talk across each like at a dinner party) can be surprisingly energy consuming, so you need to slowly build yourself up to be in a position to handle it well.
3. Your body plays a part
Eating healthy and colourful food; getting enough good quality sleep; and doing regular physical activity/exercise supports your social stamina and strength.
You are more likely to be socially clumsy and awkward if you’re not eating well. Same applies if you’re tired or your body is feeling tight from lack of movement. You’re also likely to run out of stamina quicker and are more likely to get stressed or frustrated with others.
4. Why your mindset matters
This is all about beliefs and getting curious about any guilt, frustration, or inadequacy you may be experiencing. Think about what beliefs are underpinning these feelings?
Here at The Helpful Clinic, we firmly believe that it’s more helpful to be curious than critical. That’s why we advocate people explore any feelings they may be experiencing. We call this ‘Sherlocking’ (in a nod to the great detective). You can read more about Sherlocking and how feelings are information in our It’s OK to not be OK blog here.
5. Patience and kindness
Be aware that everyone will likely to be experiencing Social Atrophy at least to some extent. So social situations might not be the same as you remember.
It’s going to take time for you and others to adjust, build up your social stamina and refine your social skills again.
Practice being patient. Cut people some slack when (notice we’re saying when, not if) they’re clumsy, inappropriate or snappy. Be clear on what’s okay for you and what’s not, but from a place of kindness and with compassion.
Then remember to apply the principles of patience and kindness to yourself. Instead of criticising yourself for your social atrophy, look at your 5 point plan for reversing your social atrophy. Check if you’re being overambitious and plunging into a social life as if you were fit and on good form.
Slow and steady wins the day
With a phased return to full social involvement you are setting yourself up for success. Not only that, you’ll also reduce the risks of any lingering issues or potential impact on your physical or mental health.
We wish you a Helpful return to being socially fit and active. And remember, it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.
In the next blog, we’ll be looking another component of the social aspect we’re all managing right now: risk and what to do when we perceive it differently.
Be sure to sign up to the fortnightly Helpful Newsletter here and check our social feeds (The Helpful Clinic Facebook page and following us on Instagram) so you know when the next blog has been published.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor