For all the spring break partiers in Miami and the eager grandparents boarding planes, there is a silent group — maybe not a majority, but a not-insignificant minority — who aren’t happy that quarantine is most likely drawing to a close.
People with social anxiety, introverts and others who find the “normal” expectations of life stressful woke up to a world that more closely resembled the one of their dreams.
The exact size of this group will never be known because it can be shameful to admit that certain components of lockdown were not only welcome, but downright joy-filled. People with social anxiety, introverts and others who find the “normal” expectations of life stressful woke up to a world that more closely resembled the one of their dreams.
When the merry-go-round of our former lives stopped abruptly last spring, some people felt comfortable with the pace of life for the first time. As one of my patients said, “The pandemic allowed me to act on my inertia.” She is happiest being a homebody and welcomed the fact that she no longer needed to keep up with an office culture that required her to have something novel to report about her weekend every Monday morning.
Social isolation even allowed some people to attack significant problems in their lives. While there’s been a very real increase in substance abuse during quarantine, mostly overlooked is the fact that others took this opportunity to get sober. One of my patients found that the absence of social obligations enabled her to address her drinking problem. During quarantine she planted a garden, visited with people virtually rather than at bars and established healthy boundaries with her family of origin; recently, she celebrated her first year of sobriety.
But the looming reality of the world reopening is creating a huge amount of anxiety. “There is so much pressure to be around people and no one seems to understand that doesn’t make me happy,” she explained. “In fact, my anxiety gets so bad I feel worse about myself.”
For different reasons, people with other mental health issues like autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety also found their anxiety decrease from minimizing social interactions, including through increased delivery services and remote work options.
Some even experienced an uptick in their self-esteem, as they saw others discover what they’d known all along about the benefits that can be derived from leading a more solitary life. For once, instead of feeling like outsiders, their lifestyle became normative. Where others struggled with the change, they were role models who demonstrated how to be content despite spending so much time alone. People asked them the secret to staying sane instead of judging them for being reclusive.
The respite from small talk, dressing for work and social obligations improved the mental health of those who don’t enjoy these activities, but it also taught the rest of us that we could in fact be happy with fewer social interactions and external events than we ever would have imagined. What may have been a pre-existing condition for some is now a preferred state for many.
Nudging reluctant people who’ve grown accustomed to, and even prefer, living in quarantine back into society requires understanding. Respecting a wide array of lifestyles is one way to show our support. Simple changes such as asking, “How was your weekend?” rather than, “What did you do this weekend?” can elicit a broader range of responses and signal acceptance of something other than meeting pro forma societal expectations. Similarly, encouraging people to prioritize low-risk/high-yield activities — dinner out with one other person, say — as a way to resume meaningful social engagements can be helpful.
Perhaps the best advice, though, is for all of us to be prepared for the fact that the pandemic has changed us. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all response to the pandemic, nor will there be one for leaving social isolation. For some people returning to the grocery store will be a victory, while others may be comfortable planning international vacations. What people do is not nearly as important as how they feel about creating a new normal. So rather than assuming everyone feels the same as they did before quarantine, we should be listening nonjudgmentally to whatever emotions are expressed as we resume life after the pandemic.
There is much to be gained whenever we make the effort to understand people different from ourselves. For those of us who welcome the end of quarantining, let’s lend a hand to those for whom this change is bound to be hard and help ease their re-entry. And for those of us who dread the end of quarantine, let us continue to remind ourselves and others to try to retain the preferred aspects of quarantine even as the world spins faster once more.