In just a few days, the world changed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing us into isolation and a new way of living. “It’s been a strange time for all of us,” says Craig Stanford, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at University of Southern California, who is working on a book about animal extinction. “Being social is the most fundamental human trait. Isolation can be cruel and very disruptive in ways we never imagined.”
“When we don’t know what steps to take to move us forward, or when we have a substantial shift in our routine and schedule, we feel vulnerable because we are a community that likes to plan ahead and to be in control,” says Dr. Annette Ermshar, a clinical psychologist and founder of Dr. Ermshar & Associates. “We are all feeling thrown off our routine and are wondering how to adjust to new realities.”
The way we interact socially has completely changed, says Stanford. For example, facial expression is important to social interaction. “No one can see you smile,” he says. “The world seems a lot less friendly because we can’t do meaningful gestures.”
In education, the physical interaction between teachers and students now takes place in cyberspace. “I have to do my lessons through Zoom and be extra demonstrative because in person my students can see my expressions,” says Lisa Yamasaki, a private tutor and adjunct lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles.
Yamasaki likes to be authentic with her students, including using humor and sweetness. Having to lecture online has forced her to make adjustments. “It made me more cognizant in the way I talk to people,” she says. “You can be more endearing in a classroom setting. They can sense my sincerity in person that otherwise needs to be qualified or rephrased on video.”
Effects of Isolation
“Everybody handles solitude differently,” says Stanford. “Solitude and isolation are not natural to humans.”
We have always lived in some type of family group and teach social rules to babies, he acknowledges. If humans did not learn through socializing, it would create problems in adulthood.
“We are all about socialization and we learn that growing up,” Stanford explains. Depriving people of being social may lead to higher rates of depression and suicide. Connecting in cyberspace is a stopgap measure and a substandard social experience. “It’s not very satisfying for most people,” he says, adding that they “would rather communicate in person than online most of the time.”
Isolation has forced people to adapt in ways they never have before, whether living alone or with families, says Ermshar. “The members of a family must adapt to spending more time together, working through problems, and exercising patience and good communication. As for individuals living alone, the ways in which individuals cope is different for each person, and it depends on how they mentally and physically approach the circumstances.”
Long-Term Effects of Social Distancing
“We will cope with this pandemic, but if it goes on a long time there will be disobedience,” warns Stanford, referring to people standing shoulder to shoulder in parks and beaches or ignoring social distancing rules in public places. These kinds of behaviors may become acceptable during a pandemic situation. “Unfortunately, you’ll see that because of the need to socialize and be with other people,” he says. “Humans will only tolerate so much.”
Nothing replaces human interaction and being together. “It’s been pretty sweet for people to have birthday parties with drive-bys,” says Stanford. “Sweet but unusual.” He also points out that “we shouldn’t let social distancing interfere with our ability to be social in some way with care. It’s important for our own emotional health and that of others.”
“As hard as it may be in this moment given the fear, hardship or pain now, as always there is an opportunity,” says Ermshar. “This can include exercising faith, exploring new hobbies or interests, taking an online course, engaging in support of others in our community, and finding purpose and discovering one’s self through calm reflection and a shift in perspective.”
Ermshar continues with an uplifting, optimistic note on how to cope: “Be still and slow down to appreciate the smaller things in life that we have taken for granted. Remind yourself that these feelings of fear and confusion will fade, try to engage in activities that maintain your ‘normal life,’ and most importantly, maintain positive thinking and a sense of hope.”