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homeless man on street waiting for vaccine

BY Leo Hynett

Culture

Social Anxiety Around Lockdown Easing

The road out of lockdown is going to be a rocky one for those with social anxiety.

JUNE 01  2021

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‘Help, the pandemic has made me an introvert!’ Will Benfield cries out at Wired, and he’s not alone. Coming out of lockdown has been met with mixed feelings for people who have actually found themselves comfortable living the lockdown life. Working from home suits some people perfectly, and reduced pressure to attend social gatherings has made lockdown a blessing in disguise.

For people struggling with social anxiety – either as an existing presence in their life or a new addition – lockdown easing is a stressful time. Some of us have lost our social spark and others have realised they perhaps never enjoyed extroverted pursuits as much as they once believed. We explore the prevalence of this post-lockdown anxiety and have gathered some tips on how to handle it.

 

Dreading the new normal

When we could finally get back to sitting inside pubs in England on May 17th it felt a lot like fresher’s week at university. Pubs were packed (or as packed as they could be with social distancing measures in place) and city centres were filled with merry drinkers. For some of us, this felt like a much-needed return to normality, for others it was the end of their peace and quiet. If you’re someone with social anxiety, the social events that most people are itching to get back to can be far from appealing.

‘Lockdown has given people with mental health conditions like anxiety and PTSD permission to stay at home, and knowing that at some point you’ll have to go out again can actually trigger stress and anxiety.’

The increase in anxiety is understandable; the past year has necessitated caution. We’ve needed to keep one another at arm’s length, regularly sanitise our hands, wear masks – we have become paranoid about the virus in order to keep ourselves safe. Letting go of that is going to be tough. For people with anxiety or OCD these precautions may have made their anxiety worse or even led to the development of new compulsions such as excessive use of hand sanitiser.

Continuing to exercise a reasonable amount of caution is probably wise, however, as if we jump too quickly into socialising we may risk further lockdowns. Striking this balance is yet another source of anxiety for many as the looming risk of further lockdowns and economic uncertainty is an understandable point of stress.

Covid Anxiety Syndrome
Researchers have expressed fears that lingering anxiety may prevent people from easily reintegrating as restrictions lift. The term ‘covid anxiety syndrome’ was coined in October of last year but it is only now as restrictions start to lift that it is truly becoming apparent to the wider world.

Covid Anxiety Syndrome ‘is characterised by compulsively checking for symptoms of Covid, avoidance of public places, and obsessive cleaning, a pattern of “maladaptive behaviours” adopted when the pandemic started. [The concern is that] the obsessive worrying and threat avoidance, including being unwilling to take public transport or bleaching your home for hours, will not subside easily, even as Covid is controlled.’

A study was carried out of people who self reported experiencing covid anxiety. Age, vaccination status, and whether or not participants in the study had lost someone to Covid-19 were all expected to be predictors of Covid Anxiety Syndrome but this was surprisingly not reflected in the results. It is also worth noting that ‘the self-reported survey approach made it difficult to ascertain whether a participant was predisposed to such behaviour owing to undiagnosed conditions,’ such as existing anxiety or OCD.

 

The pressure is on

As restrictions ease and social gatherings are coming back into our lives there is a certain amount of pressure to participate. This can be internal pressure – feeling like we’ll miss out if we don’t engage or like we owe it to ourselves and our friends to be sociable – or external pressure coming from those around us.

The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is often exacerbated by social media and this is something to be wary of as lockdown eases. Comparing our experiences to what we see of others on social media can trigger anxiety, as can the pressure to appear like we are leading ‘successful’ social lives. Avoiding excessively checking and posting to social media can help ease anxiety around missing out.

Whilst we may be worried about the return to pubs and restaurants as customers, it’s important to remember that things haven’t been easy on the other side of the bar either. Restaurants and bars have struggled to find staff as many people have left the hospitality industry after the blows it was dealt by covid. Some people found returning to customer-facing jobs difficult after time in lockdown, reducing hours or even moving jobs as a result. Remembering that everyone has struggled during the last year in their own way and being patient with one another will make the transition back to normality easier for everyone.

 

Acknowledging things have changed

Getting used to socialising again – especially in physical proximity to one another – will take everyone time to get used to again. It’s important that we all allow ourselves the time and space to readjust.

Social anxiety, just like any other type of anxiety, is based on a feeling of danger and because we’ve spent a lot of time hearing about the medical dangers of face-to-face contact, it’s understandable to feel anxious or uncertain about spending time with other people, even if we do this responsibly and according to current guidelines.’ 

Things are not the same as they once were and lingering anxiety is understandable. You won’t be the only one feeling it. Everyone has lived through the same event – though we will have all experienced it differently – and this common ground means people will likely be far more understanding than you might expect.

About the Author: Leo Hynett

Leo Hynett is a contributing Features Writer, with a particular interest in Culture, the Arts and LGBTQ+ Politics.

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