How To Maintain Friendships During A Pandemic
By Sakshi Udavant
If you feel like the pandemic has ruined your friendships, you are not alone. Loneliness has shot up in the lockdown months and government-enforced social distancing rules have kept us hobbled up in our apartments slowly forgetting what going out for drinks feels like. Being cooped up in our rooms with a severe lack of social interaction is emotionally damaging, and isolating during a worldwide crisis makes the situation worse.
Solitude can be healthy when it’s voluntary, but in times of crisis like this, when we are forced to isolate, it can trigger anxiety and depression, Amy Morin, Editor in Chief of Verywell Mind says. “Solitude is often used as a punishment (solitary confinement in jail and time-out for children) because isolation hurts us emotionally.”
“Humans are social animals who thrive in groups, but being isolated from other people like this is detrimental to wellbeing, confidence, and breeds anxiety, and uncertainty,” Dr Dominique Thompson, Bristol’s healthcare professional and youth mental health expert explains. “Being in lockdown, with the added fear of others (the fear of catching a frightening disease from the people we love), has put increasing stress on us and our ability to connect with others in a positive way.”
So how do we overcome these barriers and reconnect with our friends? The solution lies in more than just zoom calls.
Go beyond the weekly meetings to incorporate meaningful activities
“When it comes to strong friendships, it’s not about weekly meetings you have. It’s what you do in that time together that matters,” Dr Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert says.
Research shows that when we experience different activities with someone at different levels of engagement – which is called multiplexing – we deepen the relationship.
For example, she explains, If I only know you at work, the scope to experience new things and strengthen the bond is limited. But if I can hang out with you outside of work, doing something completely different, we have more opportunities to explore our relationship.
If you keep repeating the same virtual tea and chat routine, it quickly becomes stale. So both Dr Franco and Dr Thompson encourage people to try new things.
“We have potentially become institutionalised by the repeated lockdowns and narrowing of our day to day experiences, which is very concerning for young people in particular, who should be constantly learning, experiencing new activities and developing new skills,” Dr Thompson says. “This may have longer-term impacts on their social skills, confidence in meeting new people, making friends and communication skills.”
So break that cycle of zoom meetings and take up a virtual cooking class or have a Netflix party instead.
Sick of looking at a screen? Switch it up with affectionate messages
When we think of staying in touch virtually, video calls are the first opportunities that come to mind. But that’s not the only way to strengthen a relationship when you are physically apart.
When you show up for someone in times of need, it cements the bond in such a way that you will remain close even if you don’t talk to each other for a long time, Dr Franco says.
The pandemic has presented us with numerous opportunities to be vulnerable and support each other through good and bad. You don’t need Zoom to do that. A single thoughtful message is enough sometimes. “If you are reaching out to your friends to extend support and express affection,” Dr Franco adds, “that 1 message is equal to 10 messages where you are shallowly saying nothing to each other.”
If you have never done this before, here are a few templates to help you get started:
“This has been really hard for me and I just want to make sure I was sharing with you what’s going on in my life.”
“I’ve been experiencing depression in this pandemic, and I really appreciate your support.”
Don’t have the energy to text back? Here’s why
If you feel like you don’t have the energy to text your friends, know that you are not a bad person. You are not neglecting your friendships. We are in the middle of a worldwide crisis; it’s okay to take a moment away from the world.
However, it is important to recognize the difference between withdrawing to recoup your energy and depressive isolation. If you are going off the grid for a short while to rest/introspect, that’s okay. That’s healthy. But if you are actively withdrawing from all social contact for an extended period of time, you might want to consider why.
Ask yourself what it means for you to not have the energy to socialize, Dr Franco suggests. Are you afraid that people will reject you and you can’t handle that stress during a vulnerable time like this? Are friends simply not a priority for you at this stage of life? If so, what are your priority areas?
Interrogate your feelings around this topic, she says. Sometimes we have certain assumptions about what it means to interact with friends. These can look like: “When I’m with my friends, I must put on a happy face,” or “When I’m with my friends, I won’t be understood.” If you are holding on to these beliefs, deconstruct them with (ideally) a therapist or a trusted friend. Instead of worrying about whether it’s okay to ghost your friends, direct your mental energy to evaluate whether these assumptions are actually true.