Mumbai, India — When I think about the lockdown restrictions easing, I’m excited about the opportunities to step out of these four walls and see some lovely humans face-to-face. But I’m just as scared.
I’m worried I’ve lost all my social skills. How are you supposed to hold conversations without the safety of a mute button? Every time I think about parties and large gatherings, my body tenses. I breathe shallowly and lose the ability to make eye contact.
“These are the symptoms of social anxiety and they have broadly increased during the pandemic,” said Dr. Marisa Franco, a psychologist specializing in relationships. Franco has noticed people who were comfortable in large groups earlier are now finding it difficult to hold simple conversations outside of Zoom.
“I was a social butterfly,” said Vanessa Gordon, a New York-based publisher and event organizer who frequently traveled for shows before stay-at-home orders were imposed. “But now I’m afraid I can’t embrace the outgoing, social role,” she added.
Gordon was still struggling to adjust to a quarantined life when her father fell ill and one of her close friends passed away. She was unable to find a strong support system to help her navigate this time of grief. This overwhelming phase made her more cautious and insecure about her interactions with others. “I am afraid of disappointing others and don't feel well prepared to embrace the [post-pandemic life],” she said.
So has lockdown actually ruined our sociability?
Franco likened our social skills to muscles in that they lose their juice when not in use. We have spent a significantly long time away from our friends and other social groups which has likely made us feel distant and lonelier, she added.
“Loneliness reduces your willingness to interact with others,” she said. “It makes you dislike social interactions and other people’s company, making you feel further isolated.”
This starts a harmful cycle: you feel lonely because you have withdrawn from the world, but being isolated makes you more likely to withdraw, eventually pushing you into a depressive episode or chronic social anxiety. People are exhausted from the constant stressors and they don’t have the capacity to hold space for social interactions amidst these rising tensions.
“We trivialize friendships which means most people don’t prioritize social activities during critical times like this,” she said. “People are cutting out social connections that they feel are less meaningful.”
Has existing social anxiety worsened?
We know more and more people are feeling awkward and anxious about socializing in this “new normal” but what about people like Giv Nash, 25, who were socially anxious even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on our collective mental health?
Nash runs a secondhand book subscription service. “I've always been the quiet one, the one who hated speaking in front of people or being the center of attention,” she added. The pandemic helped Nash justify why she needed to recharge her batteries after a catch-up with a friend or why she didn't feel comfortable taking part in common peer activities. It helped her make peace with her introverted nature, but now that the world is opening up again, she’s nervous.
“I'm afraid of slipping into the same bad habits of forcing myself to spend time with people and agreeing to social commitments that make me uncomfortable,” she said. “Being around lots of people is overwhelming. I’m worried the pressure will return when the world opens up again.”
Franco added that compared to boomers and older millennials, the younger generation is lonelier. “And as we have seen, loneliness is correlated with social anxiety, making the youth more vulnerable to these feelings,” she said.
Those of us in Gen Z are still discovering our identities and place in the world. Peer pressure is strong and friendships are an important part of our growth experience. This can increase the stress and insecurity around initiating and managing relationships, making us more prone to symptoms of social anxiety. Online connectivity plays a part too. We in Gen Z grew up in the age of social media where virtual relationships largely influence our real-life behavior. It sounds cliche but talking on Zoom (or watching TikTok/Reels) can’t substitute face-to-face interactions.
Behavioral cues and body language signals are unreliable on virtual platforms, Franco explained. You are busy staring at your own reflection or looking at a screen rather than make eye contact. Lagging calls also make it difficult to interpret the tone of speech, making it increasingly harder to communicate effectively. But that doesn’t mean you can never go out and socialize again. It just means you need to ease into in-person activities. Franco suggested starting with a small gathering of people you trust and feel comfortable with. Do what feels safe now (both emotionally and COVID-wise) and take it from there.
And whenever you are overwhelmed with anxiety, remember: You’re not the only one feeling lonely, left out, and awkward; we’re all a little weird now!