Social Anxiety: The Hidden Cost in the Race to Reopen

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It’s December 31, 2019. As we counted down the seconds to midnight and clinked champagne glasses, we were blissfully unaware of the life-altering events that redefined our days and upended our sense of safety and security in light of COVID-19. Indeed, 2020 was a year that was met with great fanfare and anticipation, but it had become a cataclysmic one, marked by seismic shifts and unspeakable losses. We are still very much left in the wake of the year’s unsettling events as we traverse the unfamiliar landscape of “the new normal.”

Four mental health experts described the fear and anxiety that can accompany the relief in returning to life as we knew it: George S. Everly Jr., a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Jill RachBeisel, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; Kerry Graves, executive director of NAMI Metropolitan Baltimore; and Jason Parcover, director of the Counseling Center, affiliate faculty at Loyola University Maryland and a psychologist in private practice.

A new Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, four in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. This number is up from one in 10 adults who reported the same symptoms less than a year ago.

“The emotion of anxiety itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Parcover notes. “It is important to distinguish between feeling anxious, which is a normal emotion, and having an anxiety disorder. If you are unable to eat, sleep or concentrate, for example, and this goes on for several weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.”

A person may have several reasons to feel apprehensive about resuming activities that have been dormant for months. “Routine,” Graves explains, “is very important for our mental health. For many of us, our routine was upheaved at the beginning of the pandemic, and we were trying to find that ‘new normal.’” But as we adapted to life under lockdown, the idea of now dismantling our routines once again can be unsettling, she suggests.

Those who struggle with social anxiety may find it particularly difficult to resume previous levels of activity and engagement. “Social anxiety disorder,” Parcover explains, “occurs when everyday interactions with others cause significant anxiety, fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment. You fear being scrutinized or judged by others. In social anxiety disorder, the fear often leads to avoidance that can disrupt your life. It can affect your daily routine, work, school or other activities.”

Even those without a history of social anxiety are prone to facing challenges. “Anxiety, simply defined, is fear of the unknown,” says RachBeisel. “Being social is to be in close proximity to others. When it is impossible to know who is infected, one’s anxiety is heightened.”

“The virus is a ‘new’ risk in our everyday life that is invisible and can be deadly,” she continues. “Regardless of whether a person is vaccinated or not, there is no guarantee that one is 100% protected.”

Bettina Straight of Baltimore County shares, “My wife and I both have family members whose health we are concerned for. That has kept us separated for well over a year, which is emotional for all of us. I want to make the safest decisions possible while also recognizing that this separation takes its own toll.”

Kim Manchester of Baltimore City says, “I spent a lot of the last year scared that I might bring something home to my family. I just don’t think a year is long enough to say it’s fine to return to normal.”

A resident of Baltimore City who asked to remain anonymous adds, “I worry that other people I come into contact with will not have taken similar precautions to those that my family and I have.”

The experts agree it’s best to take a step-by-step approach to make the integration back into society easier. “Maybe each person should put together their own type of reentry plan,” suggests Everly.

“Start with one or two family members whom you trust outside of your own home who have been vaccinated,” says RachBeisel. “Then move to a friend you haven’t seen for a while, and then take it slowly from there.”

Graves adds, “If you’re seeing a loved one who is experiencing some signs and symptoms, openly talk to them about it. If you yourself are experiencing those, I encourage you to openly talk to your peers, your friends and your family about what you’re going through.”

Web Resources

(an independent nonprofit organization focused on national health issues)
Search for “The Implications of COVID-19
for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness

University of Maryland Medical System

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