JADE PREVOST-MANUEL – If Londoners weren’t confined to their homes right now, odds are they’d be staring gape-mouthed at the deserted malls and caution-tape-wrapped playgrounds—scenes of the city’s COVID-19 closures. Since London announced a state of emergency on March 20, more and more businesses are closing their doors as the ‘essential’ workplaces list continues to shrink.
Canada-wide restrictions—which aren’t likely to let up any time soon—aren’t just putting people out of business. They’ve created an unprecedented wave of loneliness in our hyper-connected and digitized world: something thought impossible just a few months ago.
Psychologists haven’t yet studied the emotional and psychological impacts of mass isolation on Canadians. Yet some people are saying introverts are better equipped to deal with being stuck at home.
Not necessarily, says Londoner Bojan Otomancek. Otomancek identifies as an introvert and says his experience self-isolating has been a mixed bag of emotions. It’s a delicate balance between feeling at peace and missing his old life.
“In many ways [it’s made me feel] scared, but mostly tired and sometimes humble,” he says.
His last social excursion was to an alpaca farm with his partner three and a half weeks ago. During his 24 days of isolation, his only trips out of the house have been to fetch essentials.
It’s not Otomancek’s first time isolating. He arrived in London with his family in 1995 as a refugee of the Bosnian war. The widespread fear, uncertainty and quarantine reminds him of his childhood.
“I grew up being under lockdown as a kid because of a civil war,” he says. “Quarantine sometimes brings up those fears and anxieties I experienced as a kid for many years.”
During the day, Otomancek works from home as a bridge coordinator for the ministry of transportation. To pass the time when he’s off the clock, he cooks, exercises and mixes music which he pitches to local record labels.
Otomancek says he has been able to handle self-isolation because he’s a ‘social introvert’: someone who loves socializing with people, but only the ones he shares close relationships with.
“Most times when I’m socializing with strangers I find myself trying to find ways to end the conversation, or leave the situation before the conversation even really starts,” says Otomancek. “Everything I enjoy doing, my hobbies, are things I really love to do alone.”
His biggest takeaway from isolating is realizing how much he takes for granted on any given day. Gloves, masks and FaceTime sessions with his parents are now a routine part of daily life.
“I want to go to the grocery store and not worry who coughed on everything,” he says. “I miss seeing my friends in person rather than online. I miss not having cracked skin from washing my hands so damn much.”
Psychology says introverts are typically more lonely
Since Homo sapiens split from the pre-human ancestral tree, the human species has depended on cooperation to survive. It’s helped us develop ideas, values, languages and religion—and by extension, the communities we associate with them.
Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that introverts are better at handling a quarantine order. But regardless of personality type and despite people’s best efforts to stay connected, many people are reporting profound feelings of loneliness they can’t conquer by socializing through a screen.
Rachel Plouffe is a doctoral researcher in Western’s Psychology department. She studies personality and says the hard boundary separating the introverts from the extroverts is largely imaginative.
“As psychologists, we wouldn’t define someone as purely an extrovert or an introvert,” says Plouffe. “Traits are measured on a continuum of low-to-high extroversion and we refer to introversion as ‘low extroversion.’”
Psychologist Carl Jung coined the terms ‘introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ in the 1920s. What was lost in the excitement of these newly defined personality traits was Jung’s third group—a category of personhood where the boundary between the two types blurs. Psychologists call this ‘ambiversion’.
Ambiverts have a blend of both introvert and extrovert traits. Most people, in fact, are ambiverts. They make up the most numerous personality group.
The extent of a person’s extroversion is measured by the presence or absence of certain qualities. Personality traits are a cocktail of genetics and environment, with environment playing a greater role as people grow older.
While an individual might be genetically predisposed to be an extrovert, their environment could cause them to become more introverted later in life. Under normal conditions, introverts actually report greater feelings of loneliness than extroverts do, says Plouffe.
But these are unusual times.
“[Some studies] have reported that loneliness can happen [to extroverts] when people have limited opportunity to socially interact,” she says. “It may be the case that in the current pandemic situation, extroverts are feeling lonelier [than they usually would].”
Psychologists around the world are rushing to study the effects of COVID-19’s mandatory isolation orders on emotional well-being and relationships. But the bottom line is that isolation is difficult for everyone, regardless of personality type.
“Humans require social connections to thrive, so being able to connect virtually over the phone or computer is incredibly important,” says Plouffe.
“The situation is likely posing significant challenges for all individuals psychologically.”
The internet has become a lifeline
Self-proclaimed introvert David Stainton knows the importance of virtual connection all too well. He was supposed to be starting a new job in the UK and reuniting with his long-distance girlfriend this year.
With the sweeping bans on international travel, lockdown without an end in sight has made him feel anxious about his future. For now, the internet is his only means of connecting with his loved ones abroad.
Stainton has been practicing social distancing for a month and has been in self-quarantine for over two weeks. To keep his mind from wandering down a road of hypotheticals, he’s turned to playing videogames and Skyping his friends.
“I’ve rekindled contact [with friends] through an online Dungeons and Dragons group and phone calls from people I haven’t heard from in ages,” says Stainton. “[But what bothers me right now] is the lack of schedule and a loss of direction.”
In an effort to maintain social connection, Canadians across the country have been finding creative ways to maintain their relationships online— whether it’s through Zoom meetings, FaceTime dinners or Skype birthday parties.
For Sandra Atchison, a veterinary receptionist at Ilderton Pet Hospital who still has to physically present at work, her lack of internet connection has made socializing with those close to her very difficult.
“I don’t feel ‘people-deprived’ at work,” she says. “But I’m exhausted and miss my normal life. I’m completely alone where I am and I’ve got no one to talk to.”
To reduce her family’s risk of exposure to any infectious materials she might encounter at work, Atchison has been self-isolating at an off-the-grid cottage near Port Franks. With no TV or internet, her eight-hour workdays are her only opportunity for surface-level social interactions.
Stainton is lucky enough to be able to socialize virtually. Yet self-isolation isn’t comfortable, even if he doesn’t enjoy socializing in large groups on a regular basis. Spending all his time in his home, he says, has been anything but a breather. It’s made whatever public outings are left for him to experience extremely nerve-wracking.
“If anything, it exacerbates the anxieties of being in public,” he says.
“Now, not only do I have to worry about all the people in the grocery store simply being there, but they could be infectious, too.”
Coping with COVID-19 closures and self-isolation
Between April 4 and 5, London saw its largest spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases, with the Health unit reporting 42 new cases of the virus. The latest figures for Ontario report 4,347 confirmed cases and 168 deaths. Just last week, world-wide cases surpassed 1,000,000.
The figures are overwhelming, and mental health indices are showing that the pandemic is affecting the majority of Canadians in a way psychologists typically associate with severe personal trauma.
The unfortunate reality is that Canadians are lacking the support systems that usually sustain them through difficult times. While important services are trying to adapt to the continuously changing COVID-19 landscape, there are challenges to offering digital support instead of in-person help.
For Otomancek, social media has become his creative medium for connecting with friends—he’s started a mini cooking segment on his personal Instagram called Quarantine Cuisine, where he shares his culinary concoctions. He’s started another channel to publish the techno music he’s been mixing while in quarantine.
Otomancek is choosing to look at the positive side effects of self-isolation, like how it has given him a breather from his normal routine. It’s a chance for him to break out of his typically rigid schedule and make time for activities and interactions he wouldn’t usually have the chance to engage in.
“Being lonely can be hard but use that time to tend to your needs, not the people’s needs that are around you,” he said. “Learn about yourself and dream about the life you want to live after all this [is over].”
“After this insane time we’re all going through, I think we’ll all come out as better people. Stay positive!”