Everyone experiences anxiety. Like most mental states, it exists on a continuum, both in intensity and duration. For most of the population, the pandemic will have increased our daily experience of anxiety from little or an average amount in specific situations (butterflies in our stomachs before important presentations) to a more consistent presence. The anxiety that may have been experienced previously as a periodic jolt with additional spikes of adrenaline, is now a daily occurrence.
How many times has this narrative played out in your head: “Do I have my mask? What would happen if I forgot my mask and everyone thinks I’m that person? How should I greet my friends? Should we hug? Have they been safe? What will we talk about? What if they only want to talk about the pandemic?” Thoughts like these, and even your nerves about the current state of your local ICU and the political state of the country will eventually catch up. As your brain habituates to this constant state of stress, and potentially becomes desensitized to dopamine (Hood et al., 2008), it becomes difficult for it to let go. Your brain lives in the same hyper vigilant state, despite the fact that it may no longer be exposed to the same level of traumatic stress post-pandemic.
Social anxiety disorder
For some, anxiety rises to a diagnosable level called social anxiety disorder. They experience mental and physical signs and symptoms with regularity and to a greater degree during the pandemic, and especially now we’re feeling brave enough to venture back out into the world. Their experience of social anxiety and the fear of other’s opinions also affects their tendency to be perfectionistic in their personal assessments, with a harsh internal narrative guiding our every movement.
Anxiety, whether clinical or subclinical, limits our behavior. We second-guess ourselves, sometimes stopping our actions all-together and canceling plans because we misattribute or misunderstand someone else’s reaction. After the pandemic, we may become overly concerned about hurting others due to conflicting information about the quality of vaccinations we received, whether other people did receive vaccinations but have now stopped wearing masks, and/or whether booster shots are needed. The ghost of the pandemic continues to haunt our thoughts and the way that we carry ourselves in social situations.
Despite all of our technology, we may continue to wonder if we are as up-to-date as we could be on the current news in line with the current group of people we are with, due to the extended physical isolation we experienced. Like teenagers, at first it may appear that there is one reason for our anxiety but there may be plenty of others simmering just under the surface.
What’s the good news????
Being social can be a challenge for us all. After a year in lockdown, we have all likely felt the atrophy of our social “muscles”. It’s important to be kind to each other and promote understanding (for them and for you)! Beyond that, there are ways that you can focus on actively seeking the positive out in your day, accepting the moments when you still may feel tense or afraid, and moving forward with grace for yourself and others.
- Focus on what you’ve done well at the end of each day. As you get into bed or brush your teeth, think about what you did that you can be appreciative of that enhanced social connection whether it was sending a text to someone, reaching out to an old friend, or not comparing yourself to someone.
- Remember that anxiety is a normal response to danger, and a pandemic is very dangerous, so we did all have a healthy response. It will just take some time for all of us to readjust to the fact that it is safe, and that a virus is something that is very difficult to assess in terms of when it has abated.
- Consider creating a gratitude journal or learning about positive psychology. Gratitude journals (documenting between 3-5 things that you are grateful for daily) are repeatedly proven to demonstrate an increase in emotional health and happiness. Increasing your positive emotions leaves you less time to engage with negative ones.
As we emerge from the shadows of this pandemic, no advice strikes as true as learning to be kind towards yourself and understanding towards your emotions. We all may be a little awkward remembering how to connect with others face-to-face, but in time, and with the right support, we can learn to push back those shadows of doubt in our minds as well.
Reach out to us today at PURE Health center if you’d like to talk more in depth about this transition out of the pandemic, what it’s bringing up for you, and how you can move through this time with more confidence and peace.
Hood, S. D., Potokar, J. P., Davies, S. J. C., Hince, D. A., Morris, K., Seddon, K. M., Nutt, D. J., & Argyropoulos, S. V. (2008). Dopaminergic challenges in social anxiety disorder: Evidence for dopamine D3 desensitisation following successful treatment with serotonergic antidepressants. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(5), 709-716.