The Relational Impact of the Pandemic

COVID-19, Self Isolation. Young man suffers from loneliness while being quarantined. Man in medical mask is looking out window. Coronavirus pandemic, self-isolation because of Coronavirus disease

In all my studies over the years about the brain and trauma, I am repeatedly impressed by how much we are dependent on our social experiences to maintain our mental health.

Here are a few quotes from one of my favorite authors, Louis Cozolino, who describes in his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain how our neural, or brain, architecture forms, grows and supports us within the context of relationships.

The human brain is a social organ of adaptation stimulated to grow through positive and negative interactions with others. The quality and nature of our interpersonal relationships become encoded within the neural infrastructure of our brains. It is through this translation of experience into neurobiological structures that love becomes flesh in nature and nurture becomes one.”

Later in the book he states that, “… We are born into relationships and only come to our individual identity in the context of social connectivity.… Social interactions affect everything from our biology to our intellectual abilities… Understanding the brain requires knowledge of the person embedded within a community of others.” [Pages 202, 203]

In other words, we require social and relational connections in order to survive and thrive. These connections fuel our brains.

So what has happened during this pandemic? I think we have had to adapt to many social and relational changes that have caused the feelings of abandonment and isolation because we cannot easily maintain our social interactions. Because this is happened over all these many months versus being a temporary state, our brains have had to adapt and yet in that adaptation there has been increasing levels of anxiety, stress and a sense of profound loss as we grieve what is missing in our lives.

Fortunately, we are creative creatures and have come up with many ways to reestablish some level of connectivity—via social media, zoom connections, texting and even through old-fashioned phone conversations. Also, because of some advances in the Covid war, we have some freedom to gather again and reestablish many of our relationships. For that I think we can all feel very relieved and grateful.

Depressed sad attractive woman crying on sofa couch at home feeling lonely tired and worried suffering depression in mental health, loneliness and isolation concept. Psychology, solitude and people

However meanwhile some significant damage may have occurred in our relationships. One of the things that happens when we are under a lot of stress is that we can become hyper-vigilant and hypersensitive. We can more easily misread what someone says or does as being critical when maybe it was just being inquisitive. We can fly off the handle much more easily, get frustrated, or say things we normally would not say that might hurt our relationships with others. This can then bring on feelings of shame and add to our stress and potentially do damage to important relationships.

It is important as we navigate our lives during this pandemic that we appreciate just how significant the interruptions in our social and relational experiences may have been in our lives. Perhaps we can all think of specific people we have felt hurt by or angry towards that perhaps is more a reflection of the impact of our social and relational isolation. This may be a good time to work on healing whatever pain we may have experienced or may have caused someone else.

One interesting gift for many of us as a result of this pandemic is that we may have had more downtime. This downtime could allow us time for reflection on just how much this pandemic may have negatively affected us and our relationships as we have experienced social and relational isolation.

I for one am actively taking inventory of the significant relationships in my life and am working hard to consider any ways I might have hurt someone or to offer grace to others who have hurt me.

I trust that over time there is much that can be learned about how important our social and relational experiences are as we not only nurture our own brain growth and development but also can be nurturing to others in their life’s journey.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How has the pandemic impacted your social and relational connections, especially with people with whom you are very close?
  2. Have you noticed that you or they are more hyper-vigilant and hypersensitive, sometimes saying or doing things out of anger that normally would never have caused a rift? What can you do to make amends? How can you offer grace knowing their reactions were probably more the result of the impact of the pandemic?
  3. What are some creative ways you can use to make sure you are re-engaging in as many ways as possible because we have a biological need to be in relationship with others?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute