Humans are not meant to be alone

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Anxiety and social anxiety after the pandemic

As humans, we are engineered for many challenges. One of the challenges that we are not well equipped for, however, is loneliness. The Covid-19 period of on and off lockdowns, restrictions, and social isolation has made it abundantly clear that we are not meant to be alone.

The most obvious effect of social isolation is loneliness. The effects are most pronounced on young professionals and singles, who often live on their own and far away from family. But, social isolation affects all of us. Humans evolved to be social creatures. All of us can feel disconnected from others, miss interacting with people in person, and experience loneliness.

From isolation to social anxiety

While loneliness is an obvious outcome of social isolation, in my practice I have noticed other effects that took longer to emerge and have become persistent, even as we get past the social distancing stage. As the world opens up again, more and more people have been experiencing increased levels of anxiety – in particular, social anxiety.

Your social anxiety is normal – the case of “Paul”

Paul, a 34-year-old banker living in Manhattan, came to me for help after he started meeting up with friends again, working partially from the office, and going back to the gym. He used to look forward to going out and enjoyed the camaraderie of the office environment. He was itching to get back to his regular life during the lockdown. Paul was surprised, even disturbed, to discover that he felt more anxious than excited to be spending time with people again.

If you are nervous about being around people, if Paul’s story rings true to your own experience, this is something that you should address. Even people who didn’t struggle with anxiety or social anxiety in the past have experienced symptoms after being isolated for so long and often these feelings persist long after the social distancing restrictions have lapsed.

Why many people are experiencing elevated levels of anxiety

After a prolonged period restricted to an environment with abnormally low levels of social stimulation, going back to normal activities and social situations may be anxiety-inducing for you. In other words, being socially isolated for an extended period of time can create social anxiety – simply because we’re no longer used to social interactions.

This phenomenon is referred to as habituation. Being in a situation repeatedly without experiencing harm can “train” our brain to expect that this situation is safe. Imagine that you are biking on a trail and are afraid of falling, so you get off your bike and walk. If you do that and stay safe, that creates a narrative that you will be safe if you don’t ride on the trail. When we do it enough times we train our brain that walking on the trail is safe but riding is dangerous. Each time that we walk it will become more difficult to change our minds and ride. The more that we walk, and experience no fall, the more that we habituate our mind that riding is dangerous. With each walk, we become a bit more anxious about riding!

How Covid-19 habituated us

In the pandemic, your brain said going into a crowded room is dangerous. That message was confirmed if you didn’t get sick, and assumed it was because you avoided rooms full of people. For over a year our brains were habituated to the idea that being around people is scary, and that we need to proceed with caution and suspicion. Considering the circumstances, it makes perfect sense to feel anxiety when being with people again.

Even if you had social anxiety before the pandemic, there were many small ways throughout the day that you habituated yourself to being around people. It could have been as simple as getting on the subway, buying a coffee, or interacting with co-workers. Without these opportunities, your social anxiety may have become more pronounced.

When your social anxiety is debilitating

If you had a higher level of social anxiety before the pandemic, you may have felt a huge relief that you didn’t have to interact with people so often. Re-integrating into regular social environments may be profoundly difficult for you after a prolonged period of low-level social interaction during the pandemic. You may be a lawyer who can’t speak up due to your social anxiety, a hedge fund manager that sweats profusely when you need to make a presentation, or someone who freezes up at a singles meet and greet.

Covid-19 restrictions may have given you huge relief from these very difficult situations, and finding your way back may prove more difficult.

Healing one step at a time

There are many ways to address your social anxiety, so you are not just coping with it, but thriving in your day-to-day interactions. Part of your healing will also come through re-habituation, but you will likely need a more proactive plan as well. Psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a highly effective way to treat social anxiety and can be paired with medications as well to assist the healing process. Mindfulness and meditation practices are also powerful tools to tune into and develop your own regulating system.

Fortunately, we are adaptable creatures. We can habituate our brains to almost anything. Just as we habituated our brains to be anxious, we can habituate our brains to be calmer in social situations. Gradually, as you experience successful face-to-face interactions, you will become re-habituated to being around people and your anxiety will decrease over time.

Regardless of which healing path you are on, be gentle with yourself. You have permission to honor where you’re at now and take the steps to heal on your own timeline.

Professional help can be important in providing the support that you need and enabling you to feel less alone during this period.