It feels almost impossible not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic in a blog dedicated to social anxiety disorder in 2021. After a year of social distancing, restrictions, surrounded by sickness and death, and working from home or being unemployed, I’m somewhat amused, or amazed, or something in between, that whilst there has been a lot written and talked about the negative impact on our mental health in mainstream media, there has been very little mention of specific struggles. Personally, I’m of course thinking in terms of SAD.
Yes, the rise in loneliness, isolation, stress, and the negative impact the lack of social activities has had on people have been quite frequently discussed, but apart from a previously discussed The Guardian article on how to deal with post-lockdown anxiety, I haven’t really come across anything dealing particularly with SAD.
Seeing as SAD is a fairly often misunderstood diagnosis, if it is even talked about at all, I’d welcome a more detailed and specific look at SAD in the news. For a lot of people, it seems the differences between shyness, introversion, moderate social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder is unclear.
For my own part, I was always shy in certain social situations, which means I felt self-conscious and nervous, perhaps held back by my discomfort. Other times, I was not at all shy. I have always been an introvert, which means social situations tire me out, regardless of whether I feel shy, anxious, or am having a delightful time. I need a lot of time alone, to recharge, relax, and I generally enjoy being alone. Most of my hobbies are solitary activities (making music, writing, running, doing yoga, painting, reading, etc.).
Over the years, shyness has lead to moderate social anxiety, which, untreated and ignored, has in turn lead to my diagnosis of generalised social anxiety disorder, which means I often experience panic attacks, severe anxiety, and physical symptoms such as trembling and shaking, sweating, inability to maintain eye contact, breathing difficulties, palpitations, dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly, crying, and so on.
Whilst it is perfectly normal to feel anxious in some situations, like at job interviews, you could say it isn’t perfectly normal to feel so anxious you avoid even applying for jobs because of the intense fear of having to do an interview, let alone start a new job.
And whilst it might be perfectly normal to feel a little nervous calling your doctor to make an appointment, or attend a doctor’s appointment, worrying about making the call for days or weeks beforehand — or avoid making the call at all — and then have a panic attack whilst you’re in the waiting room, might be a sign something isn’t quite right.
There is an enormous difference between preferring to be by yourself and being so afraid of being judged and evaluated you end up isolating yourself.
There is an enormous difference between postponing important phone calls because you’re too busy, lazy, distracted, or unbothered and avoiding them because the thought of picking up the phone makes you physically ill.
There is an enormous difference of avoiding avoidable, voluntary situations because you don’t actually need or want to challenge yourself and avoiding everyday, essential situations out of fear, potentially leading to ill health, unemployment, isolation, poverty, and depression.
Whilst the true prevalence of social anxiety disorder is perhaps a little tricky to evaluate, since many people avoid seeking help and many cultural factors may also play a part, there is some research which suggests a clear correlation between social anxiety disorder and a myriad of other mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, generalised anxiety disorder, and personality disorders.
The Three Stages of Lockdown
Because this blog is primarily a way for me to a) enlighten non-SAD sufferers, b) hopefully create a space where other SAD people can find a friend, and also c) share my own story, I will summarise my own SAD pandemic year thus:
- Entering Lockdown = Relief!
- Enduring Lockdown = Increased Anxiety…
- Exiting Lockdown = Full Panic Mode.
Upon entering lockdown, a number of positive changes happened for me. First, I began working from home. This meant no more open plan office, no more commuting on busy buses, no more logging in to my own personal phone anxiously waiting for it to ring whilst I felt scrutinised by everyone around me. I could choose when and how to interact with my colleagues and customers. I could choose to keep my camera and mic off during meetings. No one required me to make phone calls using my private cellphone. I could eat my lunch whenever, however, and nobody was watching me. I could use the toilet whenever I needed and never feel anxious because I was constipated or had diarrhoea — some might say this last one is weird, but the combination of irritable bowel syndrome and social anxiety disorder can be pretty awful for a lot of reason. (Stress and anxiety worsens IBS, and IBS worsens SAD, which worsen IBS, and so on and so forth.) Some people might feel perfectly happy stinking up a public bathroom, but for others, it is tremendously anxiety inducing. Just saying.
The drop in anxiety and stress levels following my switch to working from home was liberating. I had more time for exercise. I had more time for my creative pursuits, being able to spend my lunch hours painting or recording, and closing my laptop at precisely 4 p.m. and be hard at writing five minutes later.
This isn’t to say the pandemic didn’t hit me negatively as well. My partner was furloughed, which meant a reduction in income, not to mention the two of us being shut up in a small one bedroom house with no garden more or less 24/7… I have been anxious about catching Covid, anxious about my partner, friends, and family catching Covid, anxious about losing my job and my income, anxious even about my cat’s wellbeing, and I lost a loved one to Covid fairly early on. Being in a different country and with no way of going back home, I missed the funeral, I missed clearing out their house, I missed helping out with the house sale, not to mention supporting my family through it all. At Christmas, I lost another loved one to the same illness, and the cycle was repeated.
As the year dragged on, I eventually did lose my job, and whilst I was financially fine to begin with, I probably don’t have to tell you how being unemployed in the midst of a pandemic is less than ideal. The lack of social interactions also meant that not only did I not see my friends or family at all, with the odd exception of the occasional walk with one friend living nearby, but I also had no way of working with my social anxiety.
The relief of being able to be in my house, far from social situations and the anxiety they cause, soon turned into despair at how my wellbeing would ever improve. A cornerstone in working with social anxiety is to take small, manageable but regular steps to expose yourself to the things that cause you to feel anxious, so you can gradually learn that the worry that something awful will happen is worse than the actual situation: We often blow things out of proportion, seeing disaster where there might be only slight awkwardness, or perhaps nothing at all.
Likewise, when you avoid anxiety-inducing situations, your anxiety will gradually increase and spread, as it has done for me through the years. This means that situations that may have started out as uncomfortable or awkward have now turned into personal nightmares, and the number of situations causing me anxiety have gone from specific (being on stage, public speaking, starting a new job or school) to generalised (the above, plus making and taking phone calls, visiting shops, eating in public, using public bathrooms — or friends’ bathrooms — going to parties, making small talk, answering the door when I’m not expecting someone, maintaining eye contact, and so on).
However, I consider myself temporarily lucky. I’ve just started a part time, temporary contract at my old job, which means if I get another, entirely new job after this, I won’t be going from 0 to 100 overnight. I can slowly get used to socialising with people, albeit virtually, as I apply for other positions and take my gradual, regular baby steps. I’ve signed up for running races, increasing my effort from 5 to 13.1 miles in the next five months. I’m writing this blog. I make a point of calling a friend once a week. I push myself to answer the phone when it rings. I push myself to make phone calls when I have to. What else can I do?
The option would be to not do anything. To isolate myself. But, actually, I can’t. The added stress and anxiety of watching myself throw my life away, repeatedly letting opportunities for growth, happiness, and adventure pass me by, not to mention the financial struggle it entails, keeps me motivated. But it is hard, make no mistake. I’m now on antidepressants and that, coupled with my new exercise routine, coupled with the return of spring, makes all the difference.
So, anyone else out there who has struggled with social anxiety during lockdowns? How have you coped? How do you feel about the gradual return to “normal”? Or have you struggled with any other mental health issues? Let’s open up the discussion about SAD and mental health!