You’ve gotten your vaccine, but perhaps you’re not ready to emerge. A relationship expert discusses Pandemic Emergence Social Anxiety.
In light of reduced case numbers and increasing rates of vaccination here in the US, the CDC just announced that fully vaccinated people can resume activities they were doing prior to the pandemic. Although this is clearly the most hopeful sign we have had in many months, this news creates trepidation, not enthusiasm, for many of us. In fact, this dissonance between what we think we should be ready for and what we are actually ready for is so common, I’ve started calling it Pandemic Emergence Social Anxiety. Some people are feeling tense about the return to work. Others are feeling dread about travel. For people who are single, Pandemic Emergence Social Anxiety may be centered around getting back into real life, face-to-face dates.
What we know for sure is that this is the emotional reality for many of us right now. What we don’t know is how long this emotional reality will last. Let’s look at what might be causing a seemingly negative response to a seemingly positive reality.
The Etiology of Pandemic Emergence Social Anxiety
If you are watching the people around you diving back into life, while you only feel interested in dipping a tippy toe in, here are some factors that might be contributing to your struggle.
1. Sensory Defensiveness
A member of my team was telling me about a friend of hers who was dining at a brand new hot spot restaurant. When she asked her friend how it was, her friend focused only on the fact that the restaurant felt exceedingly noisy to her.If you have been living alone and working from home, your sensory environment has been especially limited for many months, and your interactions with other humans have largely taken place in one dimension on the tiny screen of your laptop.
In fact, dating combines two hard things. Dates typically take place in public venues in proximity to other people, so you are asking your system to process a feast of colors, sounds, and smells that likely create a startled reaction in your body. As if the sensory overload was not enough, dating also requires an immense amount of presence and social engagement to assess the goodness-of-fit between you and the person sitting across from you. We have all experienced atrophy of our social muscles. Although many companies have developed clever workarounds to try to mimic the “water cooler” small talk in an online setting, most of us have not practiced the art of schmoozing for a long time. Maintaining a conversation over an extended period of time may feel awkward and exhausting.
For a long time (over a year), physical touch has been totally elusive to so many of us. But as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, more and more people are beginning to spend time with each other in person. And many of us are having to relearn how to greet and socialize with each other. Something as simple as a handshake, which once felt normal and expected, can feel foreign and frightening now. Yet others may have the desire to jump into their friend’s arms for a giant hug the first chance they get. Your job is to allow yourself to hold two seemingly contradictory feelings at once: I am BOTH missing touch AND not quite ready to touch.
3. The Mind-Body Problem
Your mind says things like, “I’m vaccinated… this is low risk… it’s going to be fine.” Your body, however, has spent the better part of 15 months with one singular purpose: keeping you alive. Your body has been vigilant and precise. Your body has had innumerable experiences of stepping back when someone gets close, of hand washing, of wiping. Your body has been carrying the weight of thousands of micro-decisions. The mind does rationality. The body does threat assessment. And your mind, clever as it is, cannot override the wisdom of your body without some serious fallout.
4. Moving from Crisis to Meaning-Making is Hard Work.
Crises are turning points. They become narrative inflection points. We compare life before and life after. For each and every one of us, our lives will be forever divided into life BC (Before COVID) and life AC (After COVID). For those of us who have lost jobs, loved ones, and relationships, our life stories are marked by those intersecting turning points as well. When we are in the throes of crisis, we cannot make meaning. In the throes of crisis, we cope. We put one foot in front of the other. The “lens” of our awareness stays tightly focused on doing the next thing to survive. It is only when the threat has passed that we can begin to widen out the “lens” of our awareness and reflect on the impact of having survived this experience.
You are likely now moving into the meaning-making phase of your journey, sitting with deep questions like:
- Where will this experience “live” inside of me?
- How has it changed me?
- What parts of my old life still feel important to me?
- What is most important to me now?
Meaning-making is profound work, work that likely occupies the mental and emotional bandwidth that you might otherwise be devoting to creating a profile, connecting with potential partners, planning a date, and having a date.
How to Cope with Pandemic-Emergence Social Anxiety
Having outlined some of the factors that can fuel Pandemic-Emergence Social Anxiety, let’s talk about how to cope with it.
1. Honor rather than override
Let yourself go slowly. Honor your exhaustion. Even when your mind says, “I used to be able to go on three first dates a week,” trust your body when it says, “All I am ready for is a one-hour walk.” Even when your mind says, “It’s safe to connect physically,” trust your body when it says, “I need a slower pace after all I’ve been through.” Your body will catch up. Give it time. Your body needs to know that you are listening. When you override your body’s signals by saying, “It would be awkward to leave / I shouldn’t feel this way / There’s nothing to be afraid of,” you simply prolong your process of healing. When it comes to the idea of suppressing our emotions or our bodily truths, therapists love to use the analogy of holding a beach ball underwater. The more you attempt to push it down, the more likely it will pop back up and smack you in the face.
The benefit of honoring and accommodating your Pandemic Emergence Social Anxiety is that when you find your sweet spot between social avoidance and social overwhelm, you get to savor whatever experience you choose for yourself. When you feel ready to hug, linger in it, giving it your full attention. A good friend of mine recently shared that she has been living apart from her boyfriend during the pandemic. Upon seeing him for the first time after receiving her vaccine, she embraced him in the longest, tightest hug, and she expressed that she could feel all of the endorphins firing in her brain. Gratitude and presence are the perfect medicine for the anxiety you are likely encountering. Savoring will help you build toward experiences that can last a bit longer and be a bit more intimate.
3. Soothe Skin Hunger in Ways that Match Your Readiness
Everyone should have self-soothing mechanisms, and there are many ways to temporarily calm some of your craving for physical touch with others if you aren’t quite ready for touch. Dance, lift weights, or do a cardio workout. Choose clothing items or wrap up in blankets that feel really good on your skin. If you have one, pet a dog or a cat! Indulging with a hot shower or bath and then further treating yourself to some soothing oils or lotions can help feed our need for human contact. The human contact in most of these cases is your own, and although it isn’t the same as touching another person, any skin on skin contact is great! Meet your own needs until your body feels at ease enough to connect physically and/or sexually with another person.
4. Recognize and set boundaries that feel comfortable to you
One of my hopes is that we all will emerge from the pandemic feeling better able to ask for relational boundaries that help us feel safe and connected. Identifying and communicating dating boundaries has always been tricky, but perhaps more so today. Remember that setting boundaries is not punitive or manipulative. Rather it is how we create the conditions that maximize safety, presence, connection, and pleasure. Honoring what feels right to you at this time will help you to develop confidence as you navigate–at your own pace–the return to in-person interactions and, when you’re ready, the world of in-person dating.
Surviving a pandemic changes, and we are all in a process of understanding the impact and toll. There are individual differences in the length of our “on ramps”– what we are ready for and interested in. Our best and bravest work is to practice Relational Self-Awareness so that we can meet these differences with curiosity and compassion rather than criticism and derision.