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Fast-tracking a return to a more sociable life

Psychotherapist Mat Pronger addresses a reader-submitted dilemma about returning to a less ‘cocooned’ life after Covid lockdowns in our new advice column.

Nightclub Photo by Mert Koç from Pexels
Mert Koç (Pexels)

Over Covid I have become more introverted and prefer the idea
of cocooning with a book than a sweaty nightclub. I was wondering if
as a result of Covid and social distancing, people have become more
insular than before. Have we lost the social skills we used to
practice every day? Have our levels of oxytocin and dopamine dropped as a result? Is there a way of fast-tracking a return to a more
sociable life?

Awkward Handshakes, Twitchy Curtains

Thank you, Awkward Handshakes, Twitchy Curtains. I can’t help but noticing here that you start with a question about your own behaviour (staying in more), but then you ask more generally about whether ‘we’ have lost our social skills.

Covid is a collective trauma, but also an individual one. There are things that ‘we’ continue to go through, but also ‘you’ and ‘I’ will have had really different experiences. Some people lost jobs, loved ones and opportunities. Some people baked sourdough and learned Mandarin. Some people experienced both. We all dealt with things differently; we defended ourselves physically and mentally in different ways and with different levels of success.

It sounds like one of your defences was to accept the loss of sweaty nightclubs and get into cocooning. This is a really healthy coping mechanism, although I imagine the loss of your social life was a hard thing to come to terms with.

But your question is also about how you get back to what you had before. It sounds like you are trying to understand why the change you experienced doesn’t simply disappear. You mention oxytocin and dopamine. I wonder, would it be easier to approach this if there was some lovely hard science behind it?

Neurochemistry is… complicated. But there’s an idea we can use in here. The neurotransmitters behind love, joy, fear and stress don’t appear by magic. There’s a complicated relationship between your history and your environment that contributes to their presence. If your environment changes, we can expect your neurological response to change too. Do this for long enough and that change can become entrenched.

This ability to change (also called ‘neuroplasticity’) can be a survival mechanism. It helps people endure neglect, abuse, trauma and chronic stresses. It isn’t always fun; many people report difficulty with concentrating, depression, ‘overwhelm’ and lack of social connection post lockdown. Their brains have adapted to a more isolated life and they have not yet re-adjusted.

So, how can we use this to get back into the club, seeing our families, or just off the couch?

First is respect. Your brain is a wonderful thing, and it’s changed to protect you. If you try and smash down those defences in one giant sweep, you risk overwhelming it. Be gentle with your brain — you've only got one.

If you’re doing something that was once normal, like walking down the street, and your heart is racing, your thoughts are flying or you’re getting jumpy, you’re overwhelmed. Listen to this. If your sleep is poor, you are snappy with people or you are feeling ‘zoned out’ a lot, you are overwhelmed. Listen to this. Do something about this overwhelm. Stop, pause, step away or distract yourself.

When getting back to your old life, or building a new one, you are talking about using that neuroplasticity to rewire your brain. There’s no fast route to this. My favourite illustration for this is learning the piano. Everyone wants to sit down and bash out a great tune, but to do this we need regular, manageable practice and repetition. Like learning the piano, expect this to take time.

Try exposing your brain to smaller events, with less stimulation, and let yourself leave if you get overwhelmed. Try and avoid leaning too hard on crutches like alcohol or recreational drugs if you’re heading back to nightlife. They will mask the overwhelm you’re experiencing and override your brain in an unhelpful way.

Because all our experiences were (and are) so different, so too are our limits. Don’t let peer pressure, impatience or your own high standards push you forward too quickly. It’s better to make slow, permanent improvements than push so hard that you go backwards.

And finally, maybe you might want to keep some of the changes you’ve made. For some people Covid has meant positive changes. Don’t bin off the things that have worked well for you.

In the clamour of ‘getting back to normal’ we mustn’t forget how weird it all got back there. There’s no shame or failure in taking some time to re-adjust.

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Do you have a question you’d like to ask Mat? Send your dilemmas and questions, big and small, to nowthenhowdo@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and privacy, and they will be anonymised.

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