Exercising during isolation? Don't forget to flex those social muscles too

Dr. Alice Chen argues that being sociable and connecting with people is like a kind of muscle. And she warns that while we’re isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be starting to atrophy.
Dr. Alice Chen is an adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an internal medicine physician. (Submitted by Alice Chen)

The current need for physical distancing worldwide due to COVID-19 may be a medical necessity right now, but Dr. Alice Chen says all this isolation may cause our social skills to get seriously rusty.

While we are averting one danger, we may be unsuspectingly creating another.

Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, or somewhere in between, we all need people.… If we're out of practice, if we're not around people enough, then we can get very sucked into our own worlds.- Dr. Alice Chen

Chen is the former executive director of Doctors for America. She's also an adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and an internal medicine physician.

She argued that, just like any muscle, our social skills need to be constantly flexed and strengthened.

"Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, or somewhere in between, we all need people.… If we're out of practice, if we're not around people enough, then we can get very sucked into our own worlds and lose our ability to connect with people," Chen said. "You may say, 'Well, that's okay, we're just not around people and that'll be fine.' But the truth is that, as human beings, we have an innate need to be connected to one another. It's the same as when I'm thirsty; it means I need water. When I'm not around people, I feel lonely because I need to be with people."

We can't escape the fact that we are hard-wired for connection, said Chen. It's a drive that goes back millennia.

"Back in the day when we were foragers out in the savanna, you couldn't survive on your own … whether that was [for] food or protection or child care. And that's been baked into who we are. And so, on some level, when we're not exercising our ability to connect with one another, we're in a state that's off-kilter."

Being able to see people's facial expressions ... is part of what we see as human. And having that hidden behind a mask is jarring.- Dr. Alice Chen

Reading facial expressions is one of the key ways we interact with and understand others, and the widespread use of face masks interferes with our ability to connect. Chen said something in the human psyche finds it very unnerving to see so many faces covered up, even when it's for a good reason.

"Being able to see people's facial expressions — being able to see their teeth when they smile — it is part of what we see as human. And having that hidden behind a mask is jarring," said Chen. "There was a team of doctors who printed out a whole sheet for their patients. And it had pictures of each of them and a little bit about them and they said, 'We know this is really scary. You can't see our faces and we can't see yours. But this is who we are. This is [what] we actually look like.'"

This effort by doctors to build meaningful connections with their patients, despite being hidden behind face masks, is ideal.

Without these kinds of efforts and without regular connection with our friends, family, neighbours, and even friendly strangers, our social skills could weaken. And that could lead to a "social recession."

"It looks like a world where people are less engaged in the community, less engaged in their dependence and their responsibility toward one another," Chen explained. "It can look like workplaces where people are unhappy and disengaged and don't want to be there and keep switching from job to job to job because they never quite feel like they matter."

Chen cautioned the consequences of a social recession can be far-reaching.

"It can look like political conflicts," she said. 'When we feel like we're not as connected to one another, we're more likely to get cornered into our own ideological stances, and not be able to reach across the people who are different from us because we feel like we'll be attacked, or we feel like those people are just different. They'll never understand.

"And we know that in countries where we have healthy democratic debate, that's where we are able to solve the problems. If we're feeling isolated and feeling like we just need to take care of our own, it's going to be pretty hard for us to solve those challenges together."

Widespread chronic loneliness can lead to vicious cycle

Chen said there was an ongoing crisis of loneliness before COVID-19 became our new reality.

A vicious cycle can happen when symptoms of loneliness are overlooked. 

The lonelier someone feels, says Chen, the less they tend to reach out to others. The less they reach out to others, the less likely it is that others will check up on them. When calls become fewer, it can confirm people's worst doubts about themselves being unworthy of love. People can spiral into depression or anxiety, and this can have serious ramifications on a person's physical and mental health.

France has started allowing limited visitation rights for the families of elderly residents, proving bittersweet and too restricted to make up for weeks of isolation and loneliness. But they are shedding light on the immense emotional toll caused by locking down care homes. (Jean-Francois Badias/The Associated Press)

"The concern is that we've already had a pretty significant crisis of isolation and loneliness in the world. Here in the United States, one in five people have said that they feel isolated and lonely, and we have similar numbers around the world," said Chen. "And what happens when you're feeling chronically lonely is that it increases your risk of chronic medical conditions like heart disease. In fact, researchers have found that it increases your risk of dying early by the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day." 

Four simple exercises to work your social muscles

Dr. Chen said we should all make an extra effort now to keep our social skills strong. She offered these simple practices:

  1. Set aside time every day to reach out to the people who are most important to you. Even a 15-minute conversation can help ground both of you. It can be different people every day, or the same person.

  2. Focus on quality instead of quantity. Set aside all distractions and really be present for that one person. This deep focus can help both people feel able to open up and share.

  3. Find ways to help others. Whether it's helping your grandmother get online so she can see her grandchildren every day or sewing masks for neighbours, look for opportunities to help others.

  4. Practice solitude in a way that is meaningful. Whether through meditation, prayer, journaling or being in nature, take a moment to check in on yourself and ask, "How am I feeling? What am I experiencing?"

"Those few moments can really help us re-centre," said Chen. "And from that space of being really centred and having an awareness of where you are yourself, it is easier to connect with other people."