After Months of Quarantining, Can I Cope With My Social Anxiety?

It’s been almost a year since we all bunkered down for the first time in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. For most of those months, I’ve been sitting patiently, dreaming about being around people again. Going to clubs, meeting people at parties, and dating again all sounded like music to my ears a few weeks ago. But ever since I moved back the city from my COVID-induced hiatus, my social anxiety has been ever-growing.

A year ago I got used to telling people that my anxiety had, for the most part, subsided. In 2019 I spent a month without a home in New York and it completed changed my relationship to strangers and gave me a sense of trust in my own ability to survive in any situation, however strange it may be. But only a few short months later I was thrust into a world of almost complete isolation. I moved back in with my parents (as a lot of us had to) and really only spent time with them.

I got used to the security of only speaking to people who truly knew me. I felt confident in conversations because I also truly knew them. It was a great way to learn how to communicate with my parents, and we gained a much stronger bond in the process. But nine months later, I felt that it was time to move back to NYC. On arrival, I immediately felt a shift in my mood. There were only strangers here.

I had a handful of leftover friends in the city who didn’t move back home when COVID hit, but we hadn’t seen each other in what felt like ages. And we certainly weren’t going to run into each other at my new bodega. So, everyone was a stranger. And instead of feeling freed by that like the last time I moved here, it felt suffocating.

It’s like learning how to socialize all over again.

Every time I’ve left the apartment, it’s been harder and harder to breathe. I get flustered easily on the subway. I felt like everyone is watching me. Or, possibly more startling, maybe no one notices me at all. It has felt like this massive weight on my shoulders that I couldn’t speak to anyone about. I moved here because I was in love with this city once, but that love and passion has been buried under what I can only describe as genuine terror.

I’m not alone, ironically enough. Social anxiety seems to be more common than ever in this isolating new world. It’s like learning how to socialize all over again. There’s a heaviness to the air now that we can’t breathe freely and it might get worse before it gets better.

My anxiety boiled over when I was invited to a very small event (five people) for a friend’s birthday. I showed up six hours late after spending that entire time trying to convince myself to go. It was really lovely to see my friend again and it was actually quite nice to make a couple of new friends. But when the conversation turned on me, I had one of the worst panic attacks of my life.

So, my worst fears were realized — where do I go from here?

No matter how I tried to explain, no one in the room was understanding my perspective. Suddenly, all five people were telling me how incorrect I was, reflecting all of the insecurities I had pushed through just to come to the party. And unlike the social situations I’d gotten used to, I couldn’t simply exit the Zoom call. I had to physically remove myself from the situation. I left without saying goodbye to anyone and tried to hide my hyperventilation from the Uber driver on the way home.

Afterwards, I dealt with some of the worst suicidal ideation I’ve had in years. I hadn’t felt that socially impaired since I was a young teen. It was like all of the hard work I’d put into conquering my anxiety collapsed in one fell-swoop.

So, my worst fears were realized – where do I go from here? Well, for starters, I’ve been reading a lot about this new kind of social anxiety. I wish I’d simply read more about it before attending my friends party, because I would have known that my gut instinct to not attend was entirely valid.

According to mental health professionals, the best way to work through quarantine-induced anxiety is to ease your way back into social situations. That means meeting with people you already have an established relationship with in person before actively spending time around strangers.

If you’re dealing with the same feelings that I’m dealing with … I recommend you offer the same grace to yourself.

And, as helpless as I feel, therapy is also one of the best things that I could do while dealing with this major anxiety. I didn’t allow myself to recognize how much I was struggling until it overwhelmed me to my breaking point. Hopefully, with focused therapy, I can learn how to cope with this very new and terrifying landscape we’ve found ourselves in.

More than anything, I’m trying to remind myself that this is a very new process. As someone who has had a life-long battle against social anxiety, I shouldn’t expect myself to deal with this wild and, frankly, traumatic time in our history so well.

I’m going to try to be kind to myself. If you’re dealing with the same feelings that I’m dealing with (fear, hopelessness, confusion, etc.) I recommend you offer the same grace to yourself. We can do this.

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