Lonely students #7 The unforeseen effect of isolation
We’ve forgotten how to socialise
UKrant is focusing on the topic of loneliness among students. How much of a problem is it, what are the causes and what can you do about it?
Leaving the house is like running the gauntlet for English literature student Jeff Lenane. As a result of being locked up inside due to the corona measures, he feels like he has forgotten what it’s like to be social. The thought of meeting someone new or being in a crowd of people makes him feel anxious.
‘Every time I go outside, I’m constantly scanning for people and I pick up my pace when I make my way through congested areas. I find myself taking ten-minute detours just to avoid people’, he says.
Jeff is not the only one who’s affected by a lack of social contacts. A recent survey by UKrant and HanzeMag revealed that loneliness is a problem for nine out of ten students in Groningen. The corona measures make socialising more or less impossible. The long-term effects of quarantine have not been studied yet, but one thing is certain: being isolated for extended periods can have effects on our lives after quarantine.
According to Luzia Heu, who has just finished her PhD at the UG on loneliness and social relationships, there is a correlation between loneliness and health risks, ranging from depression, anxiety disorders and a weakened immune system to cardiovascular problems.
In a worst-case scenario, those affected by loneliness find themselves in a downward spiral and loneliness may become chronic. ‘People who are lonely tend to withdraw from social contacts’, says Heu. ‘They perceive their social environment as hostile and don’t feel understood by the people they are surrounded by. Social cues are often interpreted as negative.’
I take ten-minute detours just to avoid people
Because he’s an introvert, being out and about has always been somewhat mentally and physically tiring to Jeff, but social isolation has intensified this. ‘I had a friend over for three hours the other day and I just had to take a nap when he was gone. I’ve never done that before’, he says.
But that isn’t even the worst thing, he says. Even other forms of communication are a problem now. ‘I don’t call my parents as much as I should. We used to call every week and now we maybe speak once a month. Constantly receiving information from people you have to respond to is exhausting, but in neglecting social contacts, I’m also hurting the people I love.’
He doesn’t like texting either, because he can’t see the recipient’s reaction. ‘It’s hard to tell whether you’ve said something stupid. I’ve been more careful with filtering everything I’m saying. I’ve been shutting myself down more’, he explains.
Journalism student Mathis Gilsbach is familiar with those negative thoughts creeping in because communication largely takes place online. ‘I managed to get into a more positive headspace about it, but I still wonder about texting, whether or not someone writes you back.’
He has a tendency to think people don’t like him and can be unsure about how he’s being perceived, he says. ‘When I spend too much time by myself, that thinking gets stronger. It then starts to get in the way of motivating myself to go outside.’
I’ve used the corona restrictions as an excuse to cancel meetings
The scientific term for this is confirmation bias. Essentially this means that you interpret the words or actions of others in a negative way, which supports and thereby reinforces the already negative perception you have of yourself. People who have been isolated for extended periods have a heightened sense of social threats, such as saying the wrong thing, and are therefore more prone to experiencing confirmation bias.
For Mathis, the negative thoughts start to bubble up when he doesn’t see anyone for more than a month. The idea of meeting people seems ‘tedious’ to him at the moment. ‘When I’m alone for too long, I start to retreat into myself more’, he says. ‘You forget how to socialise.’
He had a seminar on campus a while ago ‘and I had all those thoughts of how much easier it would be to stay inside’, he says. ‘What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t find a topic to talk about during breaks?’ In similar situations in the past, he occasionally ended up sitting in a corner by himself.
Jeff, too, has avoided socially fraught situations. ‘I still see my close friends in real life, but when it comes to more important meetings, I’ve used the corona restrictions as an excuse to cancel them’, he admits.
Psychology student David Csomor is ‘generally less confident about approaching people’, he says, although he tries to meet up with someone once a week for a walk. The social aspect of his life is ‘not getting enough nutrition’, he admits. ‘Going out can be a stressor and I’ve noticed a comfort zone building up.’
Mood swings and negative thoughts when he actually does meet other people are the side effects of being alone for too long. ‘I’ve started to get a bit confused about myself and that makes me feel like I shouldn’t approach people. I’ve started to put more weight on social interactions because that one encounter can define the rest of my week.’
That one encounter can define the rest of my week
Pre-covid, David would easily shake it off when he’d feel as if the other person wasn’t very interested in him. Now, his thoughts tend to shift to a negative place. ‘Am I just an awkward person? Did I say something wrong? Maybe I’m awkward and will never come out of it. I’m constantly evaluating’, he says.
As a result of his self-consciousness, David struggles to really enjoy the company of other people. Before meeting up with someone, he tries to anticipate how he is going to act around them, trying to plan what he is going to say to avoid awkward encounters, to ‘not fuck it up again’.
He even replays past encounters in his head when he is alone. ‘I often have imaginary conversations with people. I reenact them and imagine what I could have said instead and how they would have reacted.’ He manages to get out of it by telling himself that his personality is not defined by an interaction of just a few minutes, yet it is tiring. ‘It can be annoying, because I repeat the same conversations over and over’, he says.
So what will happen when things go back to normal and he’ll be expected to go to a crowded lecture hall once more? The prospect is ‘scary’, David says, ‘although I expect I’ll be able to adapt in time.’ And Jeff already knows he’s going to be ‘awkward as shit’ once socialising is allowed again. But Luzia Heu explains the only way out is through: ‘It might feel a bit awkward at first, but just try talking to a stranger or giving a presentation.’
And if that doesn’t work, take comfort from this, Heu says: ‘New social norms may have emerged where we don’t feel obliged to meet up as much.’