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Take small steps to rekindle friendships in the new year

(Isip Xin for The Washington Post)

When it comes to relationships, friendships are more than social ties. For many of us, friends are strong sources of emotional support, especially when tragedies knock life off track.

But despite their importance, the pandemic has taken a toll on some friendships, research suggests. According to a 2021 study that included 634 participants, younger individuals and those with higher socioeconomic status felt more negative about their friendships during the lockdown.

“Some people felt lonelier and more isolated, while others felt guilty about not checking in with their friends in person,” says Jessica Ayers, lead author of the study. Another study found that social distancing decreased friendship satisfaction, especially for women.

Eloise Skinner, an entrepreneur in London can relate.

“At the start of the pandemic, my friends made a collective effort to connect via Zoom, but as life ramped up, our hangouts faded,” she says. With fewer chats and starting a new job, Skinner began to feel distant from some of her pals.

Reconnecting with those friends hasn’t been easy. “I feel guilty about not staying in touch as much as I wanted to,” Skinner admits. “Also, over the past two years, a lot has changed, and it’s hard to know how to pick these friendships back up.”

Rekindling friendships requires action, and reaching out can be challenging, says Marisa Franco, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert.

For starters, stressors such as job loss, family issues and financial strain can influence how we feel about relationships. “When we’re under-resourced, we have less energy to devote to our friendships,” Franco says. Researchers call this “stress-induced social avoidance,” and studies show that higher and daily stress levels can lead to social withdrawal.

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In addition, pandemic-induced loneliness may play a role. “Loneliness can induce self-doubt, which can make us think people dislike us,” Franco says. And when negative narratives take over, we may be less likely to connect because we’re afraid of being rejected.

Despite some trepidation, many people are eager to see friends and socialize. But navigating these relationships in the age of covid can feel like driving to a new destination without a map.

For those looking to rekindle friendships and start anew this year, taking small steps can help, Ayers says. Here are some expert-backed tips to help guide you.

Manage social worries

After nearly two years of limited in-person contact and too many video hangouts, our social skills may be rusty. “Social interaction is a muscle and with less practice, we may feel like our skills have withered,” Franco says. As a result, she says it’s common to worry that we’ll talk too much, interrupt, or simply not have enough to say.

To rebuild social stamina, flex this muscle slowly. “Hang out with someone you feel comfortable with and create a time limit around the interaction,” the psychologist suggests.

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For their first in-person get-together, Skinner and her best friend merely met for a walk and coffee. “It was a nice way to catch up, and we didn’t feel any time pressure,” she says.

And while social anxiety can be jarring, this fearful feeling rarely reflects how friends perceive us.

One study found that people tend to underestimate how much others like them and enjoy their company. The researchers also discovered that initiating conversation can elicit positive emotions. Simply asking, “How are you?” or “What have you been up to?” can serve as social glue, which can help rebuild connections, Ayers says.

Adjust expectations

When reuniting with friends, it’s common to want to make up for lost time, says Geoff Greif, a social work professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Unfortunately, this pressure can lead to outsize expectations such as wanting to tell your friend everything they’ve missed or hoping the connection will still feel the same.

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“With one of my besties, our friendship definitely changed,” says Sarah Sati, a mindfulness educator in Northern California.

Before the pandemic, Sati and her friend enjoyed yoga and meditation classes together. But once they reunited, their relationship never really bounced back. “We still see each other, but the conversation feels forced instead of authentic,” Sati says.

“Friendships are imperfect, and reconnecting can stir up feelings of disappointment and frustration,” clinical psychologist Patricia E. Zurita Ona says. Adjusting expectations is one way to handle these tough emotions.

Accept that differences may arise, Zurita Ona says. Start by acknowledging the feeling and ask yourself, “What does this emotion want me to do?” Then ask, “Is this action consistent with how I want to show up as a friend?”

Zurita Ona explains that emotions are signals that prompt behaviors.

For instance, anger can compel confrontation while disappointment might feed avoidance. Clarifying our feelings can help turn reactions into well-meaning responses, Zurita Ona says.

Practice self-compassion

“Many friendships have changed during the pandemic because the pandemic has changed us,” Franco says. But when friendships shift, we may be quick to label ourselves as “bad friends.”

Zurita Ona says one antidote to this shame spiral is self-compassion. “Self-compassion is one way to physiologically soothe distressing emotions,” she says. Research suggests that self-compassion can help intercept brooding and rumination, two thinking patterns that can make feelings of depression and anxiety worse.

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To practice self-compassion, Zurita Ona suggests acknowledging the difficult experience. For instance, if you feel guilty for blowing off a friend and aren’t sure how to make amends, simply say, “This is a difficult moment, and I feel stuck.” Then, extend kindness toward yourself. “You can start by saying, ‘I’m doing my best right now,’ ” Zurita Ona says.

Finally, decide how you want to show up in the situation. When the relationship with her workout buddy stalled, Sati didn’t beat herself up. “Instead, I made a conscious choice to align with friends who share my values,” she says.

Joy Seek

As the omicron variant surges, many people are worried about breakthrough infections and unsure how to stay safe. This uncertainty can set off feelings of sadness, fear and anger. “After the societal trauma we’ve all endured, we’re extra sensitive to experiencing more loss,” Greif says.

Spending time with friends can help us weather rough patches. Along with companionship, research shows that supportive friendships are good for physical health, emotional well-being and longevity.

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To reap these benefits, Greif recommends “dwelling in affection.”

“Embrace the tiny, joyful moments,” he says. This might mean appreciating a moment of laughter with your friend or embracing the happiness that spending time together brings. Empathy researchers call this “positive empathy,” and studies have found that observing positive emotions and sharing them with others can improve well-being and make human bonds stronger.

“Emotions are one of the building blocks of relationships, including friendships, and form the basis for long-lasting connections,” Zurita Ona says.

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