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Social Anxiety: Post-Covid

Well folks, June 15th was the day. The day we’ve been waiting for for 15 months. It’s the day that California officially “reopened.” According to Gavin Newsom, our smooth talking dreamboat of a Governor, there’s “no more social distancing. No more capacity limits. No more colors or county tiers. And if you're vaccinated- no more masks. It’s a good day.”

That last part is where I get stuck, “it’s a good day.” My cognitive, rational, logical brain completely agrees; Hell yeah it’s a good day! Let’s burn these masks! Shake hands with a stranger! Even, dare I say it…. Hug a friend?

So why doesn’t it FEEL like such a good day? I was expecting to be relieved, but there is a part of me that is still anxious, and I know I’m not alone in my anxiety. It’s not rational. According to science, the CDC and medical professionals, the only entities we could turn towards for guidance, it’s safe. We are safe.

But when it comes to feeling safe, your brain needs a little more than to just be told its ok. It has to experience safety to feel safe.

Every day for more than a year we were bombarded with overt and subliminal messaging that we were Not Safe. Other people are the danger, stay 6 feet away from them, don’t breathe the air! Remember in the beginning, when we knew nothing about how Covid-19 was transmitted? We were wiping our groceries and mail, we didn’t know who was at risk or just how deadly the disease was. Everyone was at risk. And this could kill you. It reshaped our entire lives. It completely shut the country down. It’s hard to even fathom what we just collectively lived through. Not to mention the chaos and confusion that occurred when the very entities meant to keep our country safe were fighting amongst themselves, contradicting each other at every turn.

On June 15th, our Covid bubbles popped. Poof! Just like that. Time to dust ourselves off and get back to it. Literally overnight, we shed our masks and stood side by side.

But I feel naked without a mask. Never an agoraphobe, I now feel queasy and distracted in public. I can’t immerse myself in an experience with a group of people, the fear is still lurking beneath. A part of me liked the anonymity of wearing a mask and sunglasses. I no longer had to smile at every passerby and exchange social pleasantries. I could go about my day as if I were invisible and so were you. Now we are seen again, the veil of anonymity lifted leaving my vulnerable mouth free to be seen by prying eyes. Do I smile? Am I grimacing? I’ve forgotten how to act in social situations! Not only am I anxious about getting sick and dying, but also I’m anxious about being noticed by others again. How do we leave our safe bubbles and act cool and normal in this brave new world?

When we hear messaging all day every day that we are not safe for well over a year, our bodies and minds internalize the threat. The danger lives on in our minds and in our bodies even after the threat has passed. Not only that, but the brain doesn’t mess around when it comes to preserving your own life. The brain is not going to let go of the anxiety until it truly re-experiences what it is like to feel safe. Fear is a deeply powerful motivator, it cannot be unlearned overnight.

So how can we feel safe again?

We have to radically accept that we cannot go back to the way it was before, that we have to collectively create our New Normal. We must grieve what we have lost, and then move forward - not backward.

If you’re feeling anxious in what is now a safe place, notice it. Name it. Put words to the anxiety and accept it. Thank it for its protective role and then let it go.

Fortunately for us, re-entering society will be something like small-scale exposure therapy; every day that you go out in public and don’t die your brain will receive the message that it is now safe, and eventually that, too, will be internalized. The more opportunities you give yourself to experience safety, the easier it will get. Push your boundaries, hug a friend, sit inside, use a public restroom. Breathe. It’s going to be ok.


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