The pandemic has changed each of us – and has affected our relationships with family, friends and partners immeasurably. As we emerge, bruised and blinking, from more than a year of shielding, self-isolating and social distancing, feelings of anxiety experienced during the prolonged periods of isolation will not instantly disappear. Few of us will return to our previous mindsets as if nothing has happened. Life in lockdown has been tough on romantic relationships, as well as friendships, making the transition to the “new normal” something to navigate for many. Even Esther Perel, arguably the world’s best-known psychotherapist, whose TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views, has admitted to anxiety at the prospect.
“I know I’m not the only one struggling with how to open back up to others, even though it’s what I so desperately want,” she wrote in her blog. “But after we’ve lived so long in a state of prolonged uncertainty, how are we meant to reconnect safely with the unknown in a way that invites excitement rather than fear?”
Perel, whose hit podcast Where Should We Begin? allows listeners to tune into actual couples’ therapy sessions, believes that our “collective trauma” has left us with a deep mistrust – of the world, our institutions, our bodies, each other and ourselves. To rejoin society, she says, we must all take “leaps of faith” and “calculated risks” in order to rebalance our fundamental need for both security and freedom.
“We’re beginning to make out a vision of a near-future of family gatherings, parties with friends, kissing on first dates and being able to once again experience the kindness of strangers,” she says. “Whether you are desperate to be around people, wanting to keep the solitude you found this year, or somewhere in between, this new liminal phase is an opportunity. We are entering a period of risk assessment that, I hope, will help teach us how to build back trust in the world and with each other.”
The need for socialising with levels of loneliness reportedly soaring during lockdown, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes the sooner we start face-to-face socialising again the better. The endorphins triggered by the presence of friends, he explains, are essential in creating feelings of relaxation, pleasure and calm that we now need more than ever.
“The shot of endorphins you receive through engaging with somebody socially is the best anti-depressant you will ever get,” says Dunbar, author of Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (Little Brown). In addition, endorphins tune the immune system, activating our natural “killer cells”. People with better social support networks are more likely to recover after heart attacks or strokes, and will be better armed to deal with the continuing uncertainties ahead. “The single best predictor of your mental health, physical wellbeing and even how long you live is the number of close friendships you have, and the quality of those friendships.”