The unmistakable riff from the early ’90s grunge hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana has been keeping Anna Mahan busy in quarantine.
Mahan, a recent graduate of the University of North Alabama, has been trying to fill every moment of self-isolation with engaging activities, like learning chords on her new guitar, streaming shows, and reading books. In a non-pandemic world, the self-described extrovert would be working closely with others at her now-canceled internship in Honduras.
Without the normal recharge that comes from engaging with others, Mahan, like many extroverts and social butterflies, has had to get creative. Extroverts are people who feel full and happy when surrounded by people. The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines extrovert as “a lively and confident person who enjoys being with other people.” Family, friends or even a trip to the grocery store and a conversation with a stranger would give her a boost, she said.
Now, everything has changed. Mahan said she’s noticed differences — almost like she’s using a different kind of energy to feel content.
And she is. Being around people is just one of the main sources of energy for extroverts, but the actual need stems from extroverts’ sensitivity to dopamine, or the natural chemical that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Dopamine, according to Psychology Today, is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain.
It’s released when something good happens unexpectedly. Extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine —according to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney’s 2002 book, “The Introvert Advantage” — and they need more to feel happy. Staying on the move, socializing and talking are some of the most common cravings for extroverts. But, trying new things can also prompt a surge of dopamine, said Dustin Johnson, assistant director for outreach and mental health at Auburn University.
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The sense of excitement that spawns from a new hobby can fill extroverts’ cups similarly to standing in a large crowd of friends and strangers — always awaiting the next joke or unexpected reaction. Some extroverts are figuring this out slowly, but surely. Evan King, a Huntsvillian with a passion for serving others, has been tinkering with new ways of connection.
“I’ve been reading a lot,” he said. “I’ve been working on my relationship with my wife. I’ve been gardening. We’ve had lots of Zoom calls with friends, and we are making them events.”
Within eight weeks, he said, King has had to completely rewire himself to fit the new normal, and it wasn’t without bumps. Anxiety, bouts of depression and unnerving uncertainty filled the first weeks of March. Zoom calls and movie watch parties are great, said Dr. Angela Stowe, director of UAB Student Counseling Services, but she’s heard a similar sentiment from many people: “I am so happy to be connected with you, but I am so sad that I am not with you.” King and his wife used to spend their lives out and about, it all went “poof,” and they are feeling that sentiment at home.
With time, it has gotten easier though. According to a study from the Washington Post, 500 students at the University of British Columbia said their feelings of social connection (or loneliness) only dropped by a tenth of a point of a six-point scale. And for nearly 350 adults across the country and the UK, there was even a slight decrease in reported loneliness.
This can be attributed to the change of the source of stimulation and the work being put toward keeping ones’ health stable, but some said they feel like it can be attributed to higher-quality interactions and connections.
Kayla Warner, a young professional working in Tuscaloosa, said that the conversations she’s been having through Zoom and over Facetime with friends have been more meaningful during this time of hardship. “I would much rather speak to someone for an hour on the phone than have lots of small conversations,” she said.
Those conversations might not have happened if Warner hadn’t shifted gears she said. She’s been reaching out to people she hasn’t talked to in years and dedicating more time to them. “Quality over quantity,” she said. “That’s been one of the biggest things.”
This personal transformation could have waves through society in the coming weeks as states reopen. What happens when the most outgoing and sociable members of society find contentment alone from time to time? “I will be very curious to see what we stick to,” Stowe said. “I think there will be a mix. We might see a blend…” of people continuing to stay home more and taking advantage of the freedom they haven’t had in a while. “It’s going to be overwhelming,” she said. “We need to prepare ourselves for that. It is to be expected after everything we have been through.”
But, for the meantime, while we are still hunkered down, extroverts have been looking deeper, something that extroverts are not known for digesting well, many people have valued the time for introspection. There are no distractions, Warner said, and it’s a good time to look deep and confront nasty thoughts. Going deep might be something new for extroverts, but most people are having to reevaluate their lives and thoughts at the moment — whether extroverted or not, Johnson said.
Delving into those thoughts and moments of introspection can be hard for anyone, so it is advised to share those moments with a trusted friend. “Remember to tell yourself that, ‘I am not my thoughts. Thoughts are things that happen to me. I am a person having these thoughts,’” Johnson said.
Often, those thoughts that send people into distress do not reflect the person who is having them, he said. These reflections are called “ego-dystonic,” or ideas and actions that don’t line up with one’s self-concept.
But with the appropriate perspective, those reflections can provide opportunities for growth. Mahan is welcoming the moments of introspection. When she’s not playing guitar or picking her next Netflix show, she said she’s been spending time in her head — reflecting.
“It can be really good for people or really dangerous,” Mahan said. “Instead of pushing off the thoughts I don’t want to confront, I am digging in.”
Many extroverts have taken the energy typically spent on trying new bars, restaurants with friends and reallocated it to personal growth and development. In the words of Nirvana, they’re becoming, “over-bored and self-assured” in their self-isolation.