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'Distance And Isolation Equals Safety': Undoing Social Lessons Learned During The Pandemic

Crowds, recreation and dogs at Zilker Park in Austin, TX on May 13, 2021.  Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News
Gabriel C. Pérez
For more than a year, people have stayed masked and apart because of the risk of spreading COVID-19. Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman encourages people to have patience and compassion for each other and themselves when reintegrating into social situations.

Austin Public Health says about 56% of people in Travis County are now partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Some pandemic restrictions have been relaxed, and people are starting to gather and socialize like they did before the pandemic. But after more than a year of isolation, that transition can feel jarring.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says that reaction is to be expected.

“We were wired in our most organic, primitive cells for connection and for tribe, for community,” Rockman said. “And so oftentimes we will notice that when we lack that regular interaction, our stress levels increase.”

And though Zoom and phone calls might feel like decent substitutes, Rockman says they ultimately fall short.

In those remote gatherings, she says, “people do tend to feel that they're not really needing to be their full selves or even able to be their full selves or even have to be their full selves.”

How can people get comfortable again with bringing their full selves to social interactions?

Rockman has a few tips:

  • Don’t worry about returning to life exactly as it was pre-pandemic.
  • Continue with comfortable habits and routines that started during the pandemic.
  • Think before speaking or responding in social situations.
  • Be patient with ourselves and others.
  • Differentiate between what we can and cannot control.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Rockman about socially emerging from the pandemic with brains that “have been reconditioned to think distance and isolation equals safety.”

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT’s Jennifer Stayton: What should we keep in mind when beginning to be around people again after more than 14 months of staying apart?

Junice Rockman: Our brains have been reconditioned to think distance and isolation equals safety. Our brains are wired for connection. But what happens when we go through a trauma or we go through a pandemic? It creates an imbalance in our amygdala, which is our threat detection system — that “fight, flight or freeze.” And the same brain that’s wired for connection is trying to rewire for protection.

What happens if we go for prolonged periods without regular human interaction and contact?

We were wired in our most organic, primitive cells for connection and for tribe, for community. And so oftentimes we will notice that when we lack that regular interaction, our stress levels increase. We have more cortisol that we release. When we have touch, or hug, or see a smile — when we see a smile or give a smile — endorphins are released. That happy, feel-good neurochemical. When someone pats us on the shoulders or gives us a hug or even gives us an elbow bump for that matter just as a greeting, it lights up something in our brain. It lights up the pleasure centers, and it also helps to release oxytocin.

Those bonding chemicals become decreased when we find ourselves in prolonged isolation. And so oftentimes we will notice that people have more agitation; they feel grumpier. Sometimes they feel a lessening sense of self-confidence and autonomy. And sometimes, interestingly enough, there's something about the repetition of getting out and socializing. Interacting with people, even if you are a shy person, kind of gives you a little bit of a boost in the same way if you go out and you play with a dog, or if you watch children play.

For so much of the past almost year and a half, we have been interacting. But for people who've been working at home or trying to stay in touch with friends or family, it has been through Zoom or through other virtual, visual means or over the phone. But that interaction probably doesn't count the same as actual in-person human interaction? Or do we get some kind of compensatory benefit from that?

I think that there's definitely a benefit to having some screen time for sure. At the same time, people do tend to feel that they're not really needing to be their full selves or even able to be their full selves or even have to be their full selves. Even to the point where there's all these viral memes of people showing how they're showing up to work for the day where they've got a suit and tie on the top and Christmas pajamas on the bottom. You kind of know that you're only bringing part of yourself to the table. I think that there's some value in it, but it cannot replace that human contact. It's almost like I'm going to watch a sunrise versus actually going outside and witnessing the sunrise and being under the sun.

One of the things I think we can do is think about this post pandemic reintegration. Think about it as integration. You don't have to go all the way back to how you were before. You don't even have to expect life to be the way that it was before. I think that it's important for people to take some routines and habits that actually started to work for them or bring them comfort in our mandatory isolation and then reintegrate some of those. So, it doesn't have to be either/or. It can be both.

For people who don't enjoy large group gatherings, who don't enjoy being around a lot of people, this time may not have been all negative.

Yeah, absolutely. There have been a lot of people that have expressed that it's been a relief for them. There are some people that it's just sensory overload when you interact with people on a daily basis. So, it's been a relief. And so I think that the gentle integration, the gentle or gradual ease in avoiding sensory overload — you don't have to just go all out gangbusters.

Maybe you keep ordering your groceries from home or maybe you keep having certain things delivered to you. Maybe you keep some of those meetings up with relatives. For a lot of people, they're like, “Wow, I've been able to stay in touch with my relatives, and I don't have to fly across the country or feel like I'm missing out on things.”

We have the ability to be resilient. We have the ability to adapt. We have the ability to evolve. And I think we're going to have to call on those skills and be patient with ourselves and each other, by the way, in that process.

Can you kind of give some guidance on having that patience for ourselves and for others?

Definitely think before you speak, not just your verbal response. Take a moment to ground yourself. That way you're not being so reactive. And the reaction isn't coming from this fear-based place. It's not coming from this threat-detection system in your brain. And you give your parasympathetic nervous system a chance to engage in that situation so that you're not being so reactionary.

I think it's also incredibly important that we learn how to practice this compassion with ourselves, though, and this patience with ourselves, because we are going to project onto other people the way that we see ourselves. That's how we're going to see the world around us.

But as you're taking your time and doing that, find some routines that are comfortable for you. Find some things that bring you personal comfort, whether that be hobbies, or you take a walk around the block at a certain part of the day each day. Because sometimes when you've experienced trauma and your life has been dysregulated, and in this case our country has been dysregulated and the globe — what is within my locus of control? What can I control?

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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