As Covid Exits, My Social Anxiety Reawakens
As the vaccine roll-outs continue, we may hesitantly begin to consider what our lives will look like when the world returns to normalcy. Once again we can daydream of theme parks and crowded airplanes. Our old lives are almost within reach. Joe Biden announced that he will distribute more of the available vaccine doses, which likely means we will be able to receive either Pfizer of Moderna sooner than we had thought. When my roommate learned this, she sighed in relief, “I can’t get it soon enough,” she said, “I can’t wait to get my life back.”
Though every struggle with Covid has been an individual one, the experience will leave a collective scar. Most of us are familiar with collective trauma. In the United States we experienced it after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, the global scale of the pandemic is unprecedented for this century. Covid has forced us to alter our ways of life and has caused a mental health crisis. Therapists have been flooded with new client requests, as people who have never experienced mental health difficulties have found themselves experiencing depression, anxiety, etc. for the first time.
Though I didn’t know its name until college, I have struggled with social anxiety for all of my life. I remember hiding in a corner at my first big sleepover, feeling both invisible, as though no one knew or cared that I was there, and as though everyone were looking at me too intently, noticing how strange I was or waiting for me to embarrass myself. Intense shyness persisted into my teenage years. When I started counseling for what I believed to be depression, my therapist pointed out that much of my nervousness and all of my panic attacks took place when around other people. By then I was a freshman in college, and still struggled to speak and interact comfortably with strangers. Even in the presence of friends, I felt choked when everyone in the room turned their attention on me.
Almost all of us experience social anxiety to some degree or at some point, and some experience it more intensely than I do. As I’ve aged and spent more time in therapy, my social anxiety has ebbed to some extent. However, I admit to still harboring envy for friends who feel at ease when meeting new people or standing in front of an audience.
Now, after almost a year of relief from the stress of parties and meeting new people, the vaccines promise to breath life back into our comatose social lives. I understand the excitement. I miss concerts, and yet it is difficult to imagine having the bodies of so many sweating strangers pressed into me. Even watching movies from the years past, I’ve had the occasional instinctual thought of “Where is his mask?” and “I can’t believe a stranger just got that close to her in the grocery story.”
We will have to relearn normalcy. And I will have to once again tame my social anxiety, which has laid dormant in the previous months.
The vaccine offers relief to some of our other anxieties. It comforts me to know that my 83 year old grandpa, the frontline nurses, and other essential workers will soon be vaccinated. I anticipate having to wait until the spring to get mine, and that has not ruffled me. In truth I’ve grown used to spending Friday nights on the couch, standing six feet behind the person in front of me in the checkout line, and never leaving the house without a mask. I don’t love the changes we’ve been forced to make over the past year, but I’ve adjusted to them. And hopefully, by the end of 2021, these changes will no longer be necessary. Hopefully we will be able to spend New Year's Eve at our favorite cocktail bar, or at a party, wearing our best lipstick because finally, maskless, everyone can see it.
I miss the chaos and grime of dive bars, candlelit dinners for two in the back corner of an Italian restaurant, hugging my friends. But I miss them in the way one misses sex when they’ve gone some months without it; I’ll probably be able to have them again, but I avoid the matter of "when" so as not to set myself up for disappointment. But of all the things outlawed by Covid, there is one thing that I haven’t found myself longing for: crowds. (I admit to hoping that Black Friday, especially, will remain a relic of the time before 2020).
Transitioning into a post-Covid world will be a collective experience, just like how enduring Covid was a collective pain. The most flexible and privileged of us may be able to leap right back into their normal lives, relatively unscathed. But for many of us it will be strange at the very least, and jarring or potentially traumatic at its worst.
Perhaps we can find comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our journey towards healing. Last year, when I had to cancel all of my summer travel plans, I found comfort in knowing that everyone else had to cancel theirs as well. I'm optimistic that the universal experience of adjusting will allow us to demonstrate more empathy towards one another.
In a recent interview with the Harvard Gazette, Thomas Hübl, author of Healing Collective Trauma, said, “I believe that collective healing will support individual healing and help us learn even more about individual health. We will see these two systems as unified, as they are. The collective and individual are not separate.” While this offers little concrete advice on how to manage the inevitable anxiety that comes with foreign and uncomfortable experiences, it suggests that trauma and transitions can be opportunities to learn more about ourselves, and in turn, more about navigating human interaction. I hope that the discomfort will just be a little bit of growing pains.