We have now been in quarantine for over a year. Many of us are suffering from loneliness, anxiety, low-grade depression, irritability and simply not knowing what day it is. Your workplace has become your kitchen table and you are in terrible need of a haircut. At last, way off in the distance, is a ray of hope.
The number of COVID cases is down. Locally, we are progressing toward more openness. I am fully vaccinated, and so are some of my neighbors. The skies are brightening, and I can feel the fresh cool breeze of freedom. It is hard not to rush into the life I used to know, but that would be dangerous not only for me but for the entire community.
Being in quarantine for more than a year has taken a toll on all of us. I know it has taken a toll on me. It is not just that I miss getting to go out to eat or to the theater or a concert, but more importantly, I want to hug my friends and loved ones. I want to meet face to face and not screen to screen. Our brains do not respond to faces on screens as they do to faces in person. I want to go back to work.
Contact with others is brain food
Humans, like other primates, are clan animals. We are designed to live in groups, have copious social interactions, and connect to many other people. We have a particular part of our brain just for the recognition of faces. That part of my brain has had way too little stimulation for way too long.
As newborns, our eyes focus at just the distance from the breast to our mother’s face. In that interaction between newborn and mother, each one changes the other. And that is what happens in all truly connected relationships. We change each other. I think of that changing each other as nourishment, just like food changes us.
Because of the quarantine, those nourishing neural circuits have not gotten used as they once were and are not as active as they need to be. What steps can you take to recover from the quarantine and get the most nourishment out of your relationships?
While we are waiting for the lifting of the quarantine, you can already be preparing for the social interactions that await you.
Begin a meditation practice. There are two good reasons why. The first is that meditation awakens the social brain. The social brain includes the parts of your brain and the links between them that let you sense another person, make connections, be intuitive, and understanding. These parts and their connections are all developed by meditation.
Each time you meditate, you will benefit from the experience. For one thing, it just feels good. You will awaken those neural networks of the social brain and get them ready. If you meditate for 21 days in a row, those networks start to become permanent. So don’t wait too long before you begin to meditate.
The other thing about meditation is that it makes you just a bit more observant. You are more observant of yourself and your inner experience. That puts you in just the right place for your in-person interactions with others.
Mask to Mask
I know. It is such a letdown. We get to meet in person, in small groups, but we have to keep our masks on. Let’s make some lemonade out of masked meetings.
As I mentioned, we have cells in our brains for faces. Those cells tend to take in whole faces, and here we are faced with masks. But we have eyes, and eyes are expressive. We usually look at an entire face for expression and meaning. Many of us tend to avoid eye to eye contact and find it uncomfortable, sometimes making us feel vulnerable, and your culture may say that it is inappropriate.
You will find that if you dare to make eye to eye contact, that you have a different experience with a person. Let your eyes be expressive. Give a distant hug with your eyes. Let your eyes express how much you like the other person, how much you have missed them, or even your disappointment or fatigue.
My father fell and hit his head. He was pretty old by then. The result was that he had a brain injury, and for a short time, he lost his ability to speak. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it. His eyes told us everything he had in mind unmistakably. It was amazing to see how this articulate man continued to be articulate only with his eyes. You can do it too.
Your expressive eyes will encourage your interlocutor to be expressive as well. It gives permission to be expressive. Let whatever you say be expressed with your eyes. It will help deepen your connection.
Face to Face
Eventually, we will get to meet face to face without masks. Halleluiah! Then we can hug. I want to hug everyone, even people I don’t know. But let’s not get too carried away. Feel how great that will be to have in-person meetings. Notice how it will feel to be in groups of people, to go to parties and events with lots of people there and no one on a screen.
Pay attention to that good feeling. It won’t last long. That’s one thing about feelings. Bad feelings hang around, but good feelings fade pretty quickly. Those little moments of good feelings are like pennies in the bank. They are small, but they can build up over time.
Each time you notice one of those tiny moments of good feelings, it helps pave the way for more good feelings. It provides a slight relief of stress and opens your mind up to notice more good feelings. Over time, noticing good feelings, positive news, and strong connections with other people will become your new normal.
After more than a year of isolation and doom scrolling, Zoom meetings, and social media, we need something new. If we are heading toward something different than it is now, why not make it better than it ever was? Just a little noticing is all you need to do that.
Most of us think of ourselves as thinkers of thoughts. If you are a thinker of thoughts, your possibilities are limited. When you realize that it is your ability to notice what is around you and what is going on inside you, that makes any thinking worthwhile. Thinking can overwhelm us and wear us out. Noticing opens new worlds to us and refreshes us.
Keep going and make the future great
Use your skills of noticing in all your post-pandemic encounters. That way, you will not be burdened with preconceived ideas about the people you are with. Notice when you have one of those fleeting good feelings and realize that you have just put another penny in your bank, adding to your overall abundance of happiness.
Take these simple steps and be persistent. Your ever-changing brain will adapt to what you are making relevant, good feelings and strong connections, expressive eyes and faces, giving you a better life than you had before.