“You don’t get it,” my friend told me. “I’m supposed to stay home, work from home, no cafes, no get-togethers. I can’t even go to a restaurant. I’m losing it.”
She’s not alone. Here are some quotes from real people that show how extroverts and social introverts are feeling right now:
- “I went to the store with gloves and a face mask yesterday just to see people. And I’m picking stuff up from my parents’ front porch that they left outside and I was like, ‘Please wave at me!'”
- “I have been crying on and off since hanging up from a team call, and I don’t even LIKE half the people on my team. I didn’t realize just how desperate I was for human contact.”
- “At what point do we start having building-wide Skype parties where we all wear our fanciest outfits and drink fancy cocktails in our own apartments?”
Honestly, I relate. Not only because this crisis is making me incredibly anxious, but also because I know what it feels like to not get your brain’s most essential needs met. That’s what’s happening for many people in a world of sudden isolation.
Surprisingly, as an introvert, I have some ideas on how to change that. And I have some good news for extroverts: It turns out, people time isn’t the only thing your brain craves.
Extroverts don’t just need people. They need stimulation.
The Real Difference Between Introverts and Extroverts
First off, credit where credit is due: If you’re reading this, it likely means you’re following recommendations from health officials during this pandemic. Thank you. Please keep doing that!
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It helps to know that introversion and extroversion don’t quite work the way we think. While we often talk about them in terms of “socializing” or “people time,” it actually has to do with how you respond to any kind of stimulation — not just people.
Extroverts’ brains are less sensitive to dopamine, the brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward. Compared to introverts, they need more stimulation and more input to get hits of dopamine; socializing achieves that, which is why it’s so energizing for them. But extroverts (and social introverts) can get the same dopamine hits from other stimuli — and that can also be energizing and satisfying.
In other words, extroverts don’t (just) need people. They need stimulation. People time is just one of many ways of getting that.
Which brings me to how you can stay happy when you can’t leave the house…
How to Survive Social Distancing
1. Know which kind of stimuli (besides people) make you feel good.
All of us need stimulation, but not all stimulation is created equal. It’s really about novelty, pleasant excitement, and — where possible — accomplishing concrete goals that are rewarding. That’s the recipe for triggering dopamine, and it’s one secret to a happy life.
Some ways to do that include: video games*; any kind of interactive stories or choose-your-own type media; new music you’ve never heard before; dancing (at home); walking around a part of the city you don’t know well, if you’re not under full quarantine; outdoor time in general; exercise; and trying almost anything new — maybe make a new recipe while the how-to video plays on the countertop.
*For non-gamers, please note that video games don’t have to be violent (there are mystery, exploration, escape room, and puzzle games out there that can provide hours of challenge — my favorites are Fez, the Rusty Lake escape games, Two Dots, and Oxenfree). If you’re okay with a little fantasy combat, however, I think your best bet is quest-driven MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or single-player RPGs like Skyrim. These games are engineered to deliver constant dopamine, and you can get deeply immersed in them. They can also be played socially with others online.
As a bonus, any of of the activities above can also be done with a roommate or anyone else you may live with.
2. Draw on reflective practices.
In the past, I’ve had the privilege of running meditation retreats. Often, this would involve several days with little or no talking, and at the start, the extroverts really struggled.
What’s interesting, though, is that by the end, many of those same extroverts felt like they got a lot out of it. (A loved one who runs six-month silent retreats has observed the same thing!)
This can be a very personal thing, so I won’t give you a specific prescription. Instead, I’d ask you to think about times when you feel you got a lot out of a reflective practice of any kind. It could be meditation (secular or spiritual), prayer, shamanic trance, fasting, chanting, or quiet contemplation — or any other time that you had some real peace and insights on your own.
What made those activities meaningful to you, instead of (or in addition to) crazymaking?
That question will help you zero in on ways to make this time more meaningful too, instead of just gritting your teeth through it.
3. Up your self-care game.
You know what helps when you’re cut off from friends?
Making sure all your other needs are met.
This is advice that is usually given to introverts — they will have more social “battery” if they take good care of themselves in general. But the reverse is also true for extroverts. If you’re eating well, exercising, trying to get good sleep, and generally well-cared for, you are going to deal with the stress of alone time a lot better.
Does it sound trivial? Yeah. But it also works. So drink some water, do some stretches, and treat yourself the way you wish you could treat your friends.
4. Do all the virtual things.
This week, I started a “care program” for my extrovert friends. Every night, I make space for a 30 or 45 minute call in my evening — even if my introvert battery is running low. Anyone who’s feeling isolated can grab an evening, and we’ll talk about whatever’s on their mind.
I think any extrovert can tell you that a phone call — even a video call — isn’t the same as going out with friends. But it can mean a lot when you’re alone. We even do activities together: During one call, a friend and I went on a walk together, 1,900 miles apart.
Your virtual hangouts don’t have to look like mine. You could do a group Zoom call, or talk over a headset while you both work out, or even start a group Slack with all your friends — the notifications and constant chatter will give you hits of dopamine all day long.
Obviously, none of these sources of stimulation will feel exactly like social time. They won’t have all the emotional connection of real human contact. But they can be satisfying in a similar way. The way a nicotine patch is not quite the same as smoking a cigarette, but helps; or the way a vegan at a burger place would probably enjoy a veggie burger a lot more than a salad.
I love my extrovert friends, and I want you all to be healthy. So I’ll say one last thing that usually only introverts hear:
The way you’re wired is normal, and you’re okay. And, while being outside your comfort zone isn’t easy, you’re a lot more adaptable than you think.