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COVID Lessons: Socially Distant but Emotionally Close

Rosy Thachil, MD

Disclosures

August 31, 2021

There is no doubt that COVID has reshaped the way we interact in our relationships with patients, family members, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. It has transformed the way we hold meetings, celebrate life events, and, quite frankly, live life in general. "Togetherness" has become a spirit rather than a physicality.

Over the past year and a half, a few interesting social phenomena have developed, out of necessity: 

  1. Bubble fatigue 
    In the interest of socially distancing and minimizing chances of infectious interactions, we developed "bubbles" of people we trust who are taking the recommended public health precautions. Over time, staying within these "bubbles," while absolutely necessary, was also exhausting, constricting, and at times elicited a sort of "social claustrophobia."

  2. Virtual relationships (Zoom fatigue)
    Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, WhatsApp Video — all of these seem to have become part of our vernacular now. These platforms have taken up permanent residence in the workplace, our social lives, and even our romantic and dating lives. While virtual interactions often feel less organic, these technologies have opened up a mode of communication that is here to stay. 

  3. Dungeon syndrome
    The increasing amounts of time spent inside and away from others certainly had us experiencing a certain kind of cabin fever. Human touch and human interaction are known to be associated with endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, and in turn positively impact our daily dispositions and mental health. These interactions were challenging to have taken away, even for those of us who identify as introverts or ambiverts. 

  4. Masked faces
    Even when we saw people in person, it was often difficult to ascertain expressions and delivery; many of our nonverbal facial expressive clues were now unavailable. I remember many conversations, particularly at work, in which I had difficulty ascertaining "how" something was meant as a result of this data loss. 

  5. Corona guilt
    Guilt over not being a healthcare professional. Guilt over being a healthcare worker who could potentially be exposing family or friends to COVID. Perhaps guilt from spreading illness yourself. Guilt from getting COVID and not being able to help out at work. Survivor's guilt. Mom guilt. Guilt over not exercising. Guilt from having to lay off or furlough others. Guilt for being bored while others were on the front lines. Guilt that you were able to receive the vaccine earlier (or at all) simply because of where you live or where you were born. The list could go on and on. We all probably felt pandemic guilt in some way. But the truth is, this guilt is a reflection of our empathy and care toward others. But if it goes unchecked, it can certainly lead to compassion fatigue

Though the past year and a half have been socially isolating and challenging, adversity has a tendency to breed growth and innovation.

As such, these are a few takeaways that COVID has taught me about relationships, communication, and interaction: 

  1. Socially distant does not mean socially disconnected.
    I have not been able to see my family and friends overseas for years now, and 'I'm sure many can relate to this. But thanks to virtual technologies and the internet, we are able to connect in a variety of ways.

  2. Social media can be a relationship builder.
    Over the past year, as in-person networking and relationships became increasingly risky, I noticed that many physicians and other healthcare workers turned to social media platforms to learn, educate, inspire, and network. I have found a community and camaraderie on social media that I believe will outlive the pandemic.

  3. Virtual learning is probably here to stay.
    Conferences, events, colleges, schools, and meetings went virtual, and many of these will likely have a virtual option for the future. While I feel that networking virtually doesn't necessarily feel as organic, there are certainly benefits to being able to pause/rewind/record talks, and to be able to consume on one's own time. It may also be more cost-effective, as one may not need to travel to other locations to attend in person.

  4. This was an opportunity to rekindle "old" or "forgotten" relationships.
    During the pandemic, I found myself reaching out to people I had not interacted with in years, particularly individuals that I attended medical school with or trained with. Sometimes it was to share clinical pearls from the front lines, sometimes it was purely to share experiences, and sometimes it was for moral support. Regardless, it was always well received. The pandemic uncertainty reinvigorated our shared sense of duty as a medical community.

Ultimately, I've learned that socializing and interacting is also a "muscle." As we emerge from our dungeons and bubbles, I'm finding that I'm having to "relearn" how to connect in person. But as with any muscle, with repeated use, it will become stronger and hopefully muscle memory will return.

What has the pandemic taught you about relationships and communication? Feel free to comment below.

Disclaimer: The above article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not professional medical advice. If you believe you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your physician or 911.

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About Dr Rosy Thachil
Rosy Thachil, MD, is a noninvasive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She is a graduate of Jefferson Medical College and completed cardiology training at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

Dr Thachil's clinical interests including acute cardiovascular care, cardiac critical care, and health disparities. Her nonclinical interests include personal development, blogging, and writing (at thachilmd.com).

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