As the UK celebrates “no longer being in a pandemic”, it’s time for me to face up to an uncomfortable truth. The return to normality, the very thing that millions of people are desperate for, leaves me completely and utterly terrified.
I live with something called social phobia, which is a long-term, overwhelming fear of people. For those with social anxiety, the very idea of being in a room full of people, making conversation or even making prolonged eye contact is enough to cause a full-blown panic attack. Because I also have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition that has high comorbidity with social anxiety, I often find it hard to understand people and maintain interactions without getting overwhelmed.
The truth is, like a lot of people, I’ve come to rely on lockdown as a means of avoidance. As a recent study demonstrated, the pandemic has acted as a buffer for people with social anxiety disorder: allowing them to have a “psychological distance” from social situations. While this distance has stopped a lot of people, including me, from feeling socially anxious, it’s ultimately been counterproductive for our overall wellbeing.
Lockdown acted as a plaster over the wound of my anxiety, lulling me into a false sense of security. I had no need to interact with others. I became happily accustomed to solitude. The coping mechanisms I developed to deal with social phobia were left abandoned and gathering dust. It’s always said that practice makes perfect, but without this practice, how am I meant to navigate the sudden onslaught of pressure to go out and mix? While lockdown might have cushioned my social anxiety in the short term, its long-term impact, at least in my case, is that it has made my social anxiety symptoms all the more intense. With looming engagements and inevitable run-ins, it truly feels like I’m back at square one – I no longer have the tools to deal with these situations.
Another added pressure in the face of lockdown lifting is the change of routine it’ll bring. Like many people with ASD, I find the prospect of my routine changing terrifying. After doing things a certain way for over a year now, the idea of having to recalibrate my day-to-day life feels hopelessly intimidating and almost insurmountable. But, please don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean that I don’twant lockdown to lift or that I don’t want to see people; it’s just important to acknowledge that for those who are neurodivergent or have social anxiety, adjusting to this “new normal” will take time.
For me, the most difficult thing about this readjustment process is its relentlessness. As soon as I get used to one aspect of restrictions lifting, things suddenly change all over again. Of course, restrictions lifting is a good thing for this country, but that doesn’t make the adaptation process any less overwhelming or intimidating.
More people than you think are in the same boat as me. Before the pandemic, the level of social anxiety in the UK population was already quite high – statistics show that 12 per cent (almost one in 8) of all UK people will experience social phobia in their lifetime. However, with the Office for National Statistics suggesting that almost half (48 per cent) of all adults have had their wellbeing impacted by the pandemic, the number of people experiencing social anxiety and post-lockdown dread is probably a lot higher.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Covid-19 has profoundly changed us all. No one is the same as they were in early 2020. While it would be nice for things to go back to the pre-pandemic days, this is ultimately a fantasy. Not only has the world changed, but people in it have too – some of them in ways that they themselves would never have imagined.
Millions of people have gone through formative life events: whether that be losing someone dear to them, struggling with the lingering effects of the virus, or trying to confront financial or employment issues. The truth is, we’re all going through our own healing processes right now – and some people need more time to heal than others.
With this in mind, all I ask from you is patience and understanding. Things opening up on 12 April might have been a sort of Christmas Eve for some, but for people like me, it felt more like Halloween. We all want to go back to some kind of “normal”, but it’s vital to remember that for many, this process will be a marathon rather than a sprint. Ultimately, if the past year has shown us anything, it’s that compassion should always come first.