Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
The pandemic has disrupted the rhythm of many lives in almost every discernible way. People work differently. We play differently. Many of us are self-medicating with junk food or alcohol or other drugs to make it through. And the pandemic has so many stressed like never before, the worries acute and frightening at first, then chronic and exhausting over the past several months.
And then there are those people for whom life outside the home in pre-pandemic times was sometimes unbearably stressful and frightening. These are the socially anxious people. Many of them have become proficient at hiding their symptoms, which can include irrational fears, an overly self-conscious presentation, fear of humiliation or embarrassment, and excessive worry around social interactions.
Living life mostly apart from society – with few if any direct contact-based social, work or school obligations – has been a blessed reprieve for socially anxious people.
Life at home, mostly communicating through video calls and texts, with entertainment provided by puzzles, books and Netflix, has served these individuals perfectly fine, many of them tell me. They are in no hurry to get back to life and business as usual.
Returning to some form of pre-pandemic life? That stresses them out.
Imagine you are like them, for a moment
If you are not among this crowd, imagine for a moment fearing the everyday, including chance personal encounters, speaking in front of a group, or being in crowded spaces. Imagine feeling deeply self-conscious whenever you’re in the presence of others.
Consider the idea that you may revisit any foolish statement, any awkward moment, from your day over and over again. Think about the relief this group must feel being free from these demands and stressors, most of which are ordinary and taken for granted by the vast majority of people.
How does social anxiety appear?
Social anxiety is not rare. In fact, over their lifetimes, between 10% and 12% of people are diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in the United States and United Kingdom alone. And this number may increase precipitously as some people struggle to head back into society as it reopens.
Further, many people suffer from agoraphobia, a chronic fear of places and circumstances that can drive feelings of panic, helplessness or humiliation. Many agoraphobic individuals are essentially homebound, crippled by their anxiety. And I’ve worked with many kids so anxious that, even pre-pandemic, they refused to go to school.
“Personally, I have done surprisingly well throughout the pandemic,” one socially anxious client told me recently. “Of course, the Covid-19-related illness and deaths are awful. But personally, day to day, I feel much better, much calmer. If this feeling continues for years, that’s more than fine by me.”
As vaccines become available and restrictions on distance and workplaces begin to lift, many of this group’s latent anxieties are beginning to rear their heads.
I have been concerned about the socially anxious returning to a new normal for nearly a year now, as they have been so steeped in the comfort of anxiety-free solitude. This year has been an anomaly in most every way, including emotionally.
A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.
I’ve been encouraging these clients to get out of the house every day. I’ve pressed them to be the ones in their households to shop for groceries, run to the pharmacy, virtually anything to keep them engaged in the world outside the home. Challenging their fears has been difficult, but these inroads have proven useful.
What does the new normal look like for the socially anxious?
How will they fare as they head back into society, be it a gradual or sudden shift? Will the anxiety they experience amplify, and occupy more of their thinking and energy than it did before, creating an anxiety tsunami? Left untouched or untreated, I worry that we may see a substantial uptick in agoraphobia, school refusal and social anxiety disorder in the coming months. Here are some ways to mitigate these symptoms.
Start with small steps
Get yourself or your child out of the house, if only for a while, every day. Get acclimated, slowly and gradually, to public life again. Drive to your workplace and walk around. Arrange to walk your anxious child through school. The more we expose ourselves to the stimuli we fear, the more we learn to manage the anxiety around those situations.
Be part of the solution
I find that families of people with social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, or a school refusal issue too often support their refusal to address their fears. Though well intended, this is also misguided. Every day escaping the fear solidifies a lack of a sense of the competence and resilience required to best manage it.
If someone in your home suffers from one of these social anxiety issues, allow them to lean on you as they slowly venture back out into the world. Be empathic, validating and encouraging. But press them to get out there.
Seek the help of a professional
Social anxiety and the related disorders often require the help of a therapist. Systematic cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven highly effective in mitigating the fear and phobic behavior that underlie these difficulties. And the therapy, provided by a professional with experience treating anxiety, can be relatively brief. Many experience relief in a dozen sessions.
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Since I first heard the sighs of relief from my socially anxious clients nearly a year ago, I have been concerned about a surge of social anxiety issues, and avoidance behavior, on the back end of the pandemic. I suspect some of this behavior will prove normal and adaptive: less time at work or school, more free time with family and friends. These behaviors become problematic, however, when they serve not as a matter of convenience or expediency, but remain symptomatic of anxiety and social avoidance.
If those people who are socially anxious face their fears, with the support and encouragement of their loved ones, this is a curve that can be flattened before it rises.