As the Global Nightmare Ends, A New Nightmare Begins for Social Anxiety Sufferers
From the very start of the pandemic, so many of us have been waxing poetic about what we would do when it finally comes to an end, the return to normalcy, or even a better version thereof, one where we don’t take our friendships, or even the ability to leave one’s home, for granted. A future time in which we fill our schedules with hangouts and visits to the places we’ve always meant to go but never made the time, a time when we’ll be able to have full and active social lives again.
As the situation stretched from a two-week quarantine to an indefinite leave from our daily lives, we began to truly process what we had really lost. I desperately missed my friends and family. I’d have weekly video chats with some of my besties, where the talk would inevitably turn to how we couldn’t wait to see each other again and all the amazing things we’ll do when we’re reunited. Then, the forced social isolation crept closer and closer to the one-year mark, and some things began to change …
This was a year like no other. A year of staying inside, of only interacting with the people in our households — and for some, that meant no one at all. A year of seeing most of the people you know only through a video screen. Of only passing masked, nearly faceless people as you frantically ran the errands that did take you out of the house, not wanting to be outside and exposed for longer than necessary. And that is all best-case scenario. This year, and now even longer, has had a very real effect on our mental states. On our social abilities.
"As promising and exciting as the end of the pandemic sounds, it does not come without its own set of problems."
After over a year of social distancing, many of us are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the vaccination rates in some states climbing to promising levels, so climb our hopes. You yourself may have been lucky enough to have already been vaccinated and you may be seeing many of your friends and family receive their “Fauci Ouchies” as well. With the CDC easing restrictions on socialization between fully vaccinated people, if you’re anything like me, you’ve seen your calendar slowly begin to fill up with mixed household hangouts as we cautiously venture back into the world once again.
As promising and exciting as the end of the pandemic sounds, it does not come without its own set of problems. Remember before when I was talking about the impact of isolation on our mental states? As the global nightmare comes to an end, a new nightmare begins for those suffering from social anxiety.
Growing up, I had horrible anxiety. I was painfully shy and had a hard time making friends. It took many years of pushing myself to socialize, to try to make conversation even if it almost pained me to do so, to be able to not only get through it but flourish in social interactions. After barely interacting with anyone for the past 15 months or so, I’m worried about that impact on my social abilities.
"Because we’ve spent the last year and a half discouraged, to put it mildly, from engaging in social activities like going to the movies or eating indoors, a return to that normalcy can feel daunting as well."
And I’m not the only one. I’ve had many friends and coworkers remark, typically in a somewhat joking manner to offset the very real worry, about how “weird” they’ll be when we return to a normal level of social interaction. Of how anxious the idea of a gathering, even among friends, now makes them. If you thought you were bad at small talk before the pandemic, a year without practice definitely doesn’t feel like it’ll help any. Social interaction is so nuanced, so hard and draining — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The slightest bump in an interaction can leave you feeling off, sick to your stomach, with your mind racing as it overanalyzes, replaying every moment in some strange play-by-play designed to detect possible insult or humiliation, both dealt and received.
That’s without even mentioning the lingering fear that lies just under the surface about the virus itself. With the best vaccines only 95% effective and the emergence of variants that could potentially out-maneuver the current vaccines, we cannot as a society decide to be fully “done” dealing with the coronavirus. Odds are, some of us are still going to get sick. So, we still have to worry about being cautious in regard to the virus, all while still trying to get back to normal — or as close to it as we can.
Because we’ve spent the last year and a half discouraged, to put it mildly, from engaging in social activities like going to the movies or eating indoors, a return to that normalcy can feel daunting as well. Two weeks after receiving our last shots of the vaccine, my fiancé and I decided to go for an outing. We ended our day by going for drinks at an indoor restaurant for the first time. After my first drink, I was still excited by the novelty. By my third, I had a full-blown panic attack.
The idea of being indoors with other people after it being full-on dangerous to do so only days before was hard to process and hit me all at once. I suffer from chronic illness and chronic pain, which I’m now able to maintain fairly well after years of struggling. But it takes diligence and strict adherence to certain guidelines to do so. And, this was the first time in over a year that I had been this far from my own home. Thoughts like what if I get sick and I don’t have what I need with me? What if I need to lie down and can’t right away? began to race through my head. I’m also immunocompromised and at high risk for complications from COVID. Even a 5% risk of getting sick can feel huge in the middle of a panic attack. The fun was over and I needed to go home immediately.
"If the idea of “returning to normal” fills you with anxiety, you are not alone."
In the car on our way home, I inadvertently watched as our driver sexted what seemed to be some exciting new fling, receiving a nude that I noticed while stifling a giggle, momentarily easing my panic attack. I felt a little better after reaching my apartment and a lot better after I finally drifted off to sleep, my heart still pounding. I learned a big lesson that day — I needed to take things slower when it came to reentering society. My comfort level had changed without warning, and it was up to me to figure out its new limits. Getting back to normal would take patience and kindness, for myself and for others. Still, I may never get quite back to where I was, and that needs to be okay, too.
If the idea of “returning to normal” fills you with anxiety, you are not alone. Whether you suffered from anxiety prior to the pandemic or it’s a newfound, unwanted friend that you’ve picked up along the way, there are plenty of other people who are in the same boat. Remember, it is always acceptable to ask for what you need (within reason), both from yourself and from others, when it comes to your mental health. If you need some extra care, kindness, and patience, the people worth having in your life will always be willing to accommodate you. If you need to turn down invitations, or stick to smaller, shorter hangouts to begin with, that is okay. Set your own limits. Try to listen to yourself and be aware of not pushing yourself too far. You can adjust to your new normal and make progress, even if it’s hard or takes longer than you want.
You don’t have to be in any rush to return to a “normal” level of social interaction. This is a new chapter for all of us, the emergence from a pandemic, and many of us will just be doing our best to get by. There are no guidelines for us to follow, so you can make your own path. With kindness, persistence, and patience, you should wind up exactly where you’re meant to be. It’s up to you — and only you — to decide where that is.