Combating social anxiety disorder amidst the return to ‘normal’

  • Robert Brady

  • Laura Bilodeau Courtesy photos

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 6/17/2021 7:38:16 PM

Over the past year, the world adapted to virtual zoom meetings and reading facial expressions from behind masks, so it’s no surprise that social and conversational skills may be rusty for many. While the shift to a remote workplace and personal quarantine was generally challenging, it likely became a haven for those suffering from social anxiety disorder. Now, as the nation begins to return from a state of quarantine, doctors and academics alike are exploring how the return will impact those with anxiety disorders along with the general population.

Nearly a year and a half after the world’s initial lockdown from COVID-19, most states have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel following a national increase in vaccination rollouts. With nearly half of Granite Staters fully vaccinated, Governor Sununu has loosened restrictions on businesses and schools, and lifted state-level mask requirements. Additionally, the CDC’s recent announcement that fully vaccinated people can go mask-free in most places has been a breath of fresh air for those itching to return to “normal”. While it would seem that the vast majority of the population is ready for a return to barbecues, after-work drinks with colleagues and live entertainment, these ideas may bring panic to a portion of Americans who suffer from social anxiety disorder.

Robert Brady, director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Anxiety Disorders Service and Psychology Training Programs, says people who struggle with a return to normal can combat their social-anxiety disorder by challenging themselves to face the very situations that induce their anxiety.

One of the biggest challenges that people with social anxiety disorder will face in the coming months is the self-placement into situations that make them uncomfortable. When people have long term relief from their fears, those same fears can increase when being faced again. Brady expects that through deliberate facing of those situations, combined with the assistance of a therapist, social anxiety can be reduced.

“We know from many decades of research that the most effective way to decrease fear of a situation, such as social interactions, is to experience these with increasing openness to that experience. Essentially, to face our fears and learn safety in that experience,” said Brady.

The importance of maintaining or re-establishing strained relationships is an additional obstacle for those who have lost touch with friends or family during the pandemic. The term “social distancing” was often critiqued by medical professionals and media outlets, as psychologists suggested that Americans should practice physical distancing as opposed to social. Brady believes that re-establishing lost relationships is a two-sided endeavor and that our years of social conditioning will not be lost to a year in isolation.

“Certainly relationships can suffer from not being tended to when subjected to limited interaction. But, that is a two-way street and both partners in the relationship are likely feeling the need to reestablish contact,” said Brady.

Re-evaluation of relationships with friends, family, or even romantic partners can be necessary for those who feel their social abilities have been impacted during the pandemic. For most humans, socially-normative behaviors were crafted over a developmental lifespan starting at an early age. In return, these behaviors have been ingrained for long enough to endure and recover after a year and a half pandemic.

Laura Bilodeau, behavior and social science department chair for Manchester Community College, shares the same beliefs regarding personal and professional relationships. Aside from general social anxieties, the re-emergence into teamwork and a more rigid, traditional work schedule will be difficult for many. Bilodeau suggests that even those who consider themselves to be extroverts may struggle with on-the-spot interactions.

Bilodeau reinforces the notion that those with varying anxiety disorders can be resilient and adaptive, even if not immediately. Previous health crises have shown that, she said.

“The COVID-19 protocols that included isolation may have been comforting on some level because it allowed for the avoidance of social situations; therefore the expectation to return to normal activities will likely heighten their anxieties. The mental health after-effects of this pandemic may be seen for several years, as it was post-SARS,” said Bilodeau.

While those with social and general anxiety disorder may begin to feel an uphill battle coming on, both academic and medical experts suggest that some silver linings have emerged in a state of quarantine. While variable on each person’s situation, many people expressed comfort in their newfound work-life balance without a daily commute or lengthy morning routine for example. Some reported that the time to spend at home during scheduled breaks and meal times brought closer connections to their loved ones. Brady has seen an uptick of appreciation for human interaction and an increased awareness about the importance of connection.

In April, the CDC released a new report confirming that between August 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36.4% to 41.5%. The percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2% to 11.7%. Increases were largest among adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than a high school education. In the wake of these new findings, experts like Bilodeau and Brady stress the importance of outreach to mental health professionals for increased support.

“For those individuals who have experienced worsened mental health over the course of the pandemic, please know that the mental health community of professionals is aware of the need and we are working hard to discover and put into practice innovations in care that can ultimately improve health in the moment and in the future as well,” said Brady.

 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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