Over the course of the pandemic, four out of every ten adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a leap from one out of every ten in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics. But for those of us who ordinarily struggle with social anxiety, lockdowns and social distancing “could be the ideal situation,” says Lily Brown, an assistant professor of psychology and director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. When it’s come to “expectations about these social obligations,” she says, “the pressure is off in a lot of ways.” Although there’s been an overwhelming need for anxiety and depression services during the pandemic, Brown says, her clinic has noticed that patients who struggle predominantly with social anxiety haven’t been seeking treatment.
That’s likely to change. For many, myself included, the anxiety is hitting even before a shot enters the arm. “The anticipation of social interactions is often what’s hardest,” Brown says. “The anticipatory anxiety of what that will be like might actually be worse than the reality of how bad the anxiety actually is once it’s here, but it’s that buildup period that can be very nerve-racking for people.” Welcome to the buildup period.
The good news is that we can mitigate these symptoms. The first step is to stay present. Easier said than done, but when you feel the future-oriented thoughts creeping in, Brown says, try to catch them and remind yourself not to worry about the summer until, well, summer. “When we’re thinking about the future we’re feeling anxious, and when we’re thinking about the past we tend to be feeling sad. And so the goal is, as much as possible, to try and stay just in the here and now.”
Above all we need to make agreements to be nice to ourselves. Richard Heimberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and former director of its Adult Anxiety Clinic, notes that this kindness will be especially necessary since the anxious and nonanxious alike will have some “rust.” Even the things that felt second nature in the Before Times, like commuting or working in an office, could stir up some discomfort after an entire year without practice. “The level of anxiety that we [all] feel in general is going to be elevated because of the health concerns and because of the rust concerns,” he says. It’s important to make sure any goals we set for ourselves takes this into account, and that we treat them as aspirational rather than prescriptive.
“If we expect ourselves to behave perfectly,” says Heimberg, “then we’re going to beat ourselves up if we don’t reach that standard.” For some, reemergence might be more of a slow wiggle out than a clean break through our shells, and that’s OK. “It’s about accepting that everybody else is as worried about what we think of them as the other way around. And it’s about giving ourselves the chance to simply be human.”
With lives on the line, the threat of Covid-19 empowered many of us with the confidence to say no—to others and to ourselves. The few social outings I did manage to have in lockdown have fortunately come with an extra layer of sensitivity from friends and family. I did my best to provide the same to them. Perhaps most important, the circumstances led me to extend that policy of judgment-free acceptance to myself as well. And I’m not ready to give it up.