The social anxiety epidemic emerging from the COVID pandemic

Right now an epidemic in social anxiety seems to be emerging on the tail of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Melbourne, we have been in ‘lockdown’ in an attempt to manage a second wave of cases of COVID-19 infection.  Thankfully, the hard work and sacrifice of the population to endure severe restrictions has paid off, and we have recorded 2 days in a row of zero new cases.

You would think for a population that has been severely restricted in their movement that people would be jumping for joy.  However, a powerful trend is emerging – as the rules are relaxed and restrictions are decreased, social anxiety has increased.

People in Melbourne now face an uncertain future.  They can imagine so many different scenarios that make them feel distressed, create feelings of uncertainty and increase their perception of risk and stress.  Having to venture back out into the public is a terrifying prospect for many.

Consider Ella*, who works in as a casual in a local service industry. She has a massive fear that going back to work will put her at risk.  Even though the numbers of people with the virus are low, she fears that if she gets the virus it will mean she cannot work, she cannot pay her rent, and will lead to her being kicked out onto the streets.  She has no clear way to separate her imagined perception of risk from the real risk she faces.

Consider Tony, who works in a large retail chain.  He has enjoyed the limited contact with customers and is highly anxious that people are going to flood back into the store with terrible attitudes.  He knows that the returns desk will go crazy, and management are going to open for extended hours to try to male up for lost sales.  Tony worries about the behaviour of people that come into the store, particularly those who can’t get a refund and want one, or people who feel entitled to act in ways that are unsafe in light of the new virus management rules.  He has no way to judge his ability to cope and he is in fear of how this will all play out.

Consider Donna, who has coped with social anxiety her whole adult life.  She had been going through life putting lots of effort into simply getting through each day.  She considered this just ‘normal’ – at the end of each day she felt tired and worn down simply by the energy she had to put in just to get through.  She had convinced herself that it was because she was an ‘introvert’ but had not considered that what she was experiencing was driven by unresolved social anxiety. During lockdown she was able to work from home, not have to socialise or worry what other people thought of her.  This gave her unexpected relief, and over the weeks of social isolation, she created a strong self-narrative that she ‘couldn’t cope’ with the stress of dealing in open social circumstances again

Regardless of its source, social anxiety is the new epidemic emerging from the pandemic.

As things open up, people’s social anxiety is compounded and the distress and uncertainty is returning.  People have had the chance to be separate from social situations that drive uncertainty, and as they imagine heading back out into these environments, they are noticing the unwanted feelings coming back with force.

Social anxiety is based on the fear that you cannot cope in social circumstances.  Like Ella, Tony and Donna mentioned above, to create distressing feelings from social anxiety is common – but something that can also be effectively dealt with.

Consider that to be socially anxious, a person must:

  • Assess that a social situation has a high level of risk
  • Consider the uncertainty of dealing with others risky
  • Underestimate their skills and resources to cope
  • Under-appreciate other times that they have successfully managed in social circumstances
  • Have a poor concept of success and failure in socialising – what is good enough?
  • Over-estimate everyone else’s skills and capabilities versus their own

Consider how if you looked at the world through such a lens it would be so easy to generate distressing feelings and thoughts about what may happen in future.  The more a person worries about what will happen, the more it creates an unhelpful pattern of rumination.  This overthinking amplifies objectively small things into seemingly big things, that add to the discomfort they feel.

In clinic, there are successful ways to assist people that suffer like Ella, Tony and Donna.  However their social anxiety is generated, there are a number of scientifically informed approaches that can be used to give them fast, lasting relief.  For Ella, Tony and Donna, working with me in clinic allowed them to reset their view of themselves, the social circumstances and what would happen there.  Understanding what they were in control of, what resources and skills they had and deepening their understanding of their response to uncertainty allowed them to build effective ways of responding.  Because as Donna would tell you, it is not only about coping, it is about finding a more effective way of going about life.

If you are stuck in social anxiety as things open up, you are not alone.  By understanding what drives your anxiety, you can take steps to create the change you want.  Contact me to find out how I can help you now.

[ * names and circumstances are changed to guarantee confidentiality ]