PANIC/GRIEF, or the Pain of Social Distance

Do you feel it? The pain of being stuck inside, apart from the people you love? Apart from the routine movements that fill the rounds of daily life that are blindly taken for granted? The patterns of interaction or exchange that, like signposts on a road, made these routine movements meaningful – i.e., innocuous small talk with a co-worker whose office you passed every day; the familiar feel of your desk or warm glow of your screen; the distaste for a fellow co-worker or a voice that grates on you? The feeling of others present in unfocused encounters like riding a train or bus, walking through a hotel lobby or department store, or people watching from your upstairs window? You’re not alone. As apes, our brains evolved to crunch complicated calculations about conspecifics; about one’s position relative to others; about one’s love, lust, like for another and their evaluation of one’s self; about one’s status or reputation; about past interactions and anticipation of future ones. Indeed, our supercomputer of a brain seems designed to handle up to 150 relationships in a network of others (Dunbar 1992). Social intelligence, perhaps; a powerful need, definitely. We are designed to be “nosy,” to talk about each other, to gossip, to want to “groom” each other, to compete and be co-present. Why?

Late-neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp (1998; 2005; see, also, van der Westhuizen and Solms 2015) identified seven structurally discrete affectual systems in mammalian brains that he theorized evolved to coordinate – and sometimes command – the behavior of mammals facing the same sorts of evolutionary challenges. [The all-caps was Panksepp’s strategy for emphasizing the motivational component over the usual emphasis on primary emotions – however, each affectual system corresponded with one or a set of related emotions]. (1) SEEKING, or the motivation to pursue resources; (2) RAGE, or the motivation to defend those resources; (3) FEAR, or the motivation to avoid pain and destruction; (4) LUST, or the motivation to bond intimately with some others; (5) PANIC/GRIEF, or the motivation to avoid rejection, isolation, and exclusion; (6) CARE, or the motivation to nurture the young; and (7) PLAY, or the motivation to bond with others through vigorous interaction. In primates, particularly apes, the latter three are bigger in size because of their obvious importance to sociality. A key insight from Panksepp is that these affectual systems are primary systems like our digestive or endocrine systems: though they may work in coordination with cognitive functions, they usually serve as executive controls (that is, they stimulate and control other functions like memory or behavior) and, in intense moments, as command functions taking over the entire body and forcing “instinctual” reactions. This is not to say that we are automatons, but that affect is primary to cognition (Damasio 1994; LeDoux 2000); which, really isn’t controversial.

That all said, our brains are plastic in so far as these affectual systems are designed to aide in learning (Davis and Montag 2019). Memory, for instance, is predicated on information being selected as important or not based on the affectual intensity it elicits and valence it triggers. Thus, more emotionally intense events become more easily remembered, more easily recalled, and more likely to be deemed relevant to the self and/or a relationship (Conway 2005). Thus, as George Herbert Mead theorized, our self is constructed through interactions with others – real, imagined, and generalized – such that we acquire the meanings that make physical, social, and ideational objects significant and, therefore, something we can coordinate our actions in pursuit or use of. The resources we SEEK or when, why, and how we RAGE (that is, how and why we express or suppress anger), and whom we LUST after is a mixture of our evolved affectual systems, unique genetic factors, and, very often, the sociocultural environment we acquire Mead’s meanings.

One of the most powerful systems, in my opinion, is the PANIC/GRIEF system. Panksepp notes that all neonates trigger the PANIC system automatically when they lose sight of their mothers and, conversely, all mothers trigger PANIC when they lose sight of their young. Any parent who cannot find their child in a crowded mall or any reader that recalls being separated for even the shortest period in an unfamiliar place knows the feeling. We are, essentially, wired to feel the emotions centered in PANIC when suddenly isolated and when we a bond is dissolved or we are excluded or rejected. Interestingly, Panksepp gave the PANIC system a second name, GRIEF, to reflect the intertwined relationship between losing sight of a caregiver and threats to and losses of social bonds. To be sure, isolation, rejection/exclusion, and loss all elicit different culturally appropriate emotions and different levels of intensity based on the many factors including the significance of the person with whom we lose a bond, the duration of the relationship that is threatened and, thereby, the time, energy, and other resources we’ve invested, and the source of blame to which we attribute the affectual response (self, other, group, abstract system). Exclusion and rejection are particularly painful, often eliciting intense social emotions like shame and humiliation (Retzinger 1991; Gilligan 2003), whereas losing a bond because of death triggers grief in all of its forms. But the point stands: the loss of anchorage to person or group, for a variety of reasons, triggers a deeply evolved affectual system that, subsequently, pushes us into action. Why does this matter?

Right now, most if not all of those who chose to read this are sitting alone, at a computer, socially, responsibly distancing from others. The pangs of anxiety you feel are natural activation of FEAR to the uncertainty of when this will end and what that end will look like. The activation of GRIEF we have is premised on not being able to have the small or the large, the mundane or the spectacular co-present rituals affirming our social ties. And, for some of us, when both are activated, we probably do feel a sense of PANIC. That we have three affectual systems devoted to different types of social bonding (LUST/intimacy; CARE/nurturance; and PLAY/social joy) underscores the variety of interactions we are being excluded from; even those we have long taken for granted and which a survey would surely miss as most people do not even realize just how much we yearn for the simple exchanges as much as the more complex. Indeed, I would argue the former are more important than the latter, which may help explain why my twitter feed features as many people isolating with their family feeling anxiety and grief as those who are alone for one reason or another. That is, we would expect those stuck with the significant others to feel supported and warm and not social pain. So, why is this the case?

In previous posts on this site, I have presented Alexandra Maryanski’s (1987; also, Maryanski and Turner 1992) network analyses of the four remaining ape species (Gibbons; Orangutans; Gorillas; Chimps). One of the central arguments is the counter-to-the-conventional-sociological-assumption that apes – of which we belong – prefer to have only a couple strong ties and many weak ties. Chimps, for instance, live in communities that share a territory, but have few strong ties. Mothers and their young are obviously strongly bonded, but that is the extent to which those types of ties exist. Male-male bonds do form between hunting partners who reciprocate meat sharing, but when females reach child-bearing age, they leave the natal group and join another and so do some of the males. Female-female bonding is also quite rare. Hominins, which split from chimps and therefore shared a Last Common Ancestor, also preferred autonomy, independence, and few strong ties/moral obligations. That means, the earliest human societies likely included a lot of freedom of movement.

Our brains, then, are theoretically designed to make complex social calculations about a lot of weak tie relationships. There is pleasure found in gossip; in associating with people who we share a single interest with; in friendly and intense status competitions; in the banter that comes and goes, but which is as routine as the road we take to work everyday, the seat we occupy in every lecture in a class, and familiar occurrences that make us mildly content or annoyed. So, the general feeling is we are missing significant others, but we really are missing the extensive networks we belong to as direct, indirect, fringe, or bridge members. The familiar has melted away.

To put it more colloquially: we are mourning. Your friends and family over social media and facetime are going through the five stages at different paces and over different social bonds. The world is grieving over social ties and panicking over what this means for the self in the future.

Furthermore, when we take a walk or brave a supermarket, the rules of distancing and the paranoia many feel and express, has created unsatisfactory small, weak tie exchanges. We have all become Goffman’s (1963) “normals” and everyone is now a non-person; someone to fear, The dynamics of interpersonal interaction are now mechanical and conscious instead of fleeting, taken for granted, and mildly contenting.

But, why are people stuck with their significant others feeling isolated and anxious? Well, there is sociological evidence that strong ties are not always our favorite ties (Small  2017). They are exhausting, mentally draining, and filled with obligations – everything we, as apes, dislike. To be sure, I love my family; and, I think there have been a lot of good things to come from being stuck for almost two weeks in a small space together. But, the lack of freedom of movement and escape from the “social cage” as Maryanski – putting a twist on Weber’s “iron cage” – call’s it, is stressful and just as anxiety-riddled. If variety is the spice of life, then the bonds built on familiarity and the totality of self blur the thrill of backstage/frontstage divisions; of the transition from one to the next; of intrigue; of being only a tiny sliver of oneself and having secrets that give depth to our weak tie relationships. Reputation in our family life matters much less on a day-to-day basis. Social calculations are mundane and rote. In a word, the thrill is gone.


About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
This entry was posted in Emotion, Evolution, Musings on Sociological Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to PANIC/GRIEF, or the Pain of Social Distance

  1. Pingback: Cultural Trauma and Total Social Facts | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

  2. Pingback: Plagues… | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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