I guess I’m really lucky. I’ve been able to continue working through this whole pandemic by using Slack or Skype. My company has been working efficiently and we’ve managed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. So I do “see” my coworkers often during the day, attend meetings, etc.
Socially, I also depend on Zoom or FaceTime. Because my immune system is compromised, I have been extremely strict about not leaving my house and I’ve stayed away from being with family and friends. I can’t afford to take any risk, so I have been truly isolated.
I have been able to get all of my needs met by getting deliveries — it seems almost daily — of every possible item I desire. So again, I realize how lucky I am. I am lacking for nothing. Well, almost nothing. I do miss getting and giving a hug, a pat on the hand, a kiss hello. I crave physical human contact, which I’m not getting now at all. So I suppose that’s getting to me. But lately, I’m just feeling so incredibly miserable that I have to wonder and worry what’s going on with me.
In the past, I would sometimes forgo in-person get-togethers and retreat into my digital life. I look back on those times and realize how silly I was to not take full advantage of every opportunity I had to be with people face to face. I yearn for those times and wish I could somehow get them back.
I am aware of the tremendous benefits I’m getting from technology. Through our digital lives we share humor and feelings and listen to one another. I’m sure our ability to connect digitally has likely saved our lives and certainly has allowed us to keep our sanity. Despite all of my gratitude, lately I’m feeling a hole inside of me that is getting bigger and bigger by the day and I can’t quite identify what is happening to me.
Can you explain to me why, despite all the safety nets I’ve had in place from the start of this virus, and all my successes in continuing to stay connected personally and professionally, I feel myself losing ground and feeling sad, lonely, and disconnected? Is this period of time enough to drive me to this place or could there maybe be something else going on inside of me that I’m not aware of?
Dear Feeling Unsafe,
There are many positive things to be said about connecting digitally with one another. However, we are learning there is no substitute for seeing one another face-to-face. Neuroscientists have long known that no matter how sophisticated our electronic algorithms, they will never match the intricate, fine-tuned communication system in our bodies and brains. That is what you and so many other people are missing right now!
Digging a bit into neuroscience, we have learned that when we are in the presence of another person, our bodies reflectively begin to attune to the body of the other person. Our heart rates synchronize, we begin to mirror each other’s gestures and facial expressions, and, at times, even our voices can begin to take on a similar register. Our physiological states align, and because of that, we are better able to understand one another and feel truly connected.
Clearly, there are many advantages to face-to-face communication. In person, we have a better ability to know whom to trust. Neuroscientist Stephen Porges has compared our bodies to polygraph machines. You signed off your letter with “Feeling Unsafe.” Our autonomic nervous system constantly monitors our surrounding to help keep us out of danger. Without even thinking about it, we pick up on nonverbal cues that tell us whether the person we are interacting with is a friend or a foe. Our heart rate, perspiration, and respiration are constantly sending our brains signals, subliminally feeding us details regarding our status. There is quite a bit of involuntary work going on behind the scenes. Until we truly feel safe, we are often locked in a defense mode.
Our ability to read each other while in each other’s presence gives us the opportunity to pick up on fluctuations in one another’s faces — even subtle areas, such as one’s cheeks or forehead — which can relay a whole host of messages regarding emotions and inform us as to whether we may have said something that may have rubbed the other person the wrong way or particularly pleased them. When we are denied interpersonal contact, specifically due to the present COVID crisis, we risk losing this ability to read the other properly. Fine-tuned processing can deteriorate.
Also, in live conversation, you can sift through many other interesting features as well. Non-verbal cues are everywhere and some people might go so far as to say that the verbal content is only adding a relatively small amount of information above and beyond the non-verbal cues.
Additionally, many people are quite sensitized to whether they are “feeling seen.” Through Zoom, we are seeing and being seen, but it doesn’t really hit the mark in the same warm, fuzzy way that physically being in someone else’s presence does for us. People become more energized and engaged from a direct gaze that triggers a physiological response. Believe it or not, studies have shown that eye blinks were more synchronized under live conditions than when connecting digitally.
The subject of neuroscience is both fascinating and complex. For your purposes, I think it validates what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. We are now realizing how painful it is not to hug a friend, how easily misunderstandings can arise when coworkers are not in the same room, and how it’s just harder to connect online in a truly meaningful way. I’m sure your strict adherence to isolation has been the correct choice. All I can advise you to do is hang in there, because this too shall pass. Perhaps most important is to use this experience as a learning opportunity going forward.
In the future, we will probably think twice before retreating into our digital lives, as opposed to making the effort to go out and connect with family and friends in the way connections were meant to be made. During this period of time, we are all recognizing our shared humanity and developing a visceral comprehension of what we all truly crave: In-person connections that have the potential to create new relationships or protect the ones we already have. Something tells me that in the future, you and so many others will never again take for granted a hug, a pat on the back, or a kiss hello. These wonderful moments will return. For now, understand what it is that you are feeling, recognizing that it is situational and that your life will, G-d willing, regain normalcy.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.