Social Distancing Has Become Too Social

Please, I'm begging you. No more Zoom parties.

NEWS/FEATURE: Social Isolation Has Become Too Social
Photo: Guido Mieth/Getty Images

When the coronavirus rapidly began spreading in the U.S., the only thing comforting my sense of panic was the fact that as an introvert, socially distancing myself to keep others safe isn’t so different from my regular day-to-day, pre-COVID-19.

Ah yes, I thought. I can do this. As helpless as I feel sitting around in my Brooklyn studio apartment, I can at least do my part by doing what I do best: cutting down my social activities.

But two weeks into self-isolation, my social life somehow feels way busier than it was before we were all rendered housebound. All of a sudden, everyone wants to FaceTime and have Zoom parties, and Google Hangout sessions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten on FaceTime with friends I haven’t spoken to in years and given a “tour” of my studio (which consists of me spinning in a circle with my phone in my hand, because again, it’s a studio). I’ve even managed to peel off the sticker on my laptop camera, which had been in place since 2015, when I started watching Mr. Robot and made a half-hearted attempt to protect myself from hackers.

For about a week or so, this was great. Fun, even. Isn’t it amazing how technology has made it so that we can feel connected, even during a time of isolation and extreme anxiety? I thought.

Now, as grateful as I am for the virtual happy hours, I’m also starting to feel… overwhelmed. Somehow, social distancing has become too social, with not enough distancing, and I’m starting to miss my quiet time. And it seems like I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Marni Amsellem, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Smart Health Psychology, attributes the uptick in virtual hangouts to a collective need to break out of complete isolation.

“Social isolation is really not healthy for us — I think a lot of people instinctively know that, and are making the effort to reach out,” she says. “It’s a time of forging connections, because your neighbor down the hall is pretty much the same distance as a friend who’s 3,000 miles away.”

Not to mention, Dr. Amsellem points out, many of us have seen drastic changes in our schedules. I’m fortunate enough to still have a job, but that isn’t the case for millions of people in the country right now. And for those who may have been laid off, furloughed, or otherwise without work, that means a lot of free time they might be hoping to fill by getting in touch with friends and family. I’m also lucky to be socially isolating on my own, without roommates or family who would render alone time almost completely obsolete — and I don’t have to juggle my full-time job on top of taking on childcare (all my thoughts to introverted parents out there).

“Some people are much busier than usual, whereas others find their day has completely opened up,” Dr. Amsellem says. “It’s about recognizing that not everyone has the same constraints right now — some are feeling very overwhelmed by the schedule changes, others are turning that feeling into action by reaching out. While this is extremely healthy, it can also feel extremely overwhelming if this is more than we’re used to.”

In other words, it’s OK if you find yourself needing some alone time as a consequence of social distance, even if it feels weird to decide to take time off while in isolation. I 100% feel for extroverts who thrive off talking to people, who are now being forced to get creative with how they get their social interaction. But as an introvert, I need time alone to recharge so that I can be an actual empathetic person when I do interact with others, instead of getting snappy because I feel like my energy is all used up. “I have too many friends and family members who want to talk to me all the time” sounds like a privileged complaint, and in my case, it absolutely is — but it’s important to carve out downtime for yourself, even when it seems like all we have is extra time.

“It’s really about understanding what our own saturation levels are, and knowing that it’s OK to decline a call, and to sit out a virtual happy hour if you’re feeling exhausted,” Dr. Amsellem says. “It’s almost like if it were real-life events: You’re not going to go to every single happy hour that comes up, you pick and choose what works for your schedule and needs.”

Obviously, there are ways to decline Zoom hangouts without hurting other people’s feelings. Dr. Amsellem suggests considering the reason for the call. If a friend you haven’t spoken to in months wants to FaceTime but you’re exhausted, politely ask for a rain check for another day. If a group of friends is calling you into a Google Hangout that’s become a weekly occurrence, you can tell them you’re going to sit this one out and catch up with them next week. And if the intimacy of having someone see into your living space and all the dirty dishes you’ve racked up is too much for you, suggest a phone call instead of a video chat. Or, you know, suggest a nice sustained text conversation if that’s more your speed.

There’s a balance to everything, and as we’re all figuring out the best ways to stay connected to each other without driving each other crazy, be gentle with your friends and yourself.

“Keep in mind that most of these [virtual interactions] are going to be positive, so even if it means taking you out of your zone a little, it can definitely be a healthy thing,” Dr. Amsellem says. “Just know your own limits, and what works for you.”

Personally, I will be issuing a moratorium on any phone or video conversations after 9:30 p.m. to really maximize on the alone time that I spend not talking. But you do you — whatever's best for your health, emotionally and physically.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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