The U.S. Is Opening Up. For the Anxious, That Comes With a Cost

In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, about half of respondents expressed concern about adjusting to in-person interactions.

As the pandemic narrowed the world, Jonathan Hirshon stopped traveling, eating out, attending cocktail parties, and commuting.

It’s a relief to hear that.

Social anxiety is a serious problem for Mr. Hirshon. Meetings and casual get-togethers used to be marked by rapid heartbeats and clenched fists. While others tolerated Zoom meetings, he preferred to interact virtually. He found lockdown life to be a respite even as he grieved the pandemic’s toll.

“To feel good during a pandemic is cognitively dissonant,” he explained.

With normalcy about to return, Mr. Hirshon, a public relations consultant, feels “anticipation, dread, and hope”.

Hirshon, 54, belongs to a subset of the population that finds the daily grind emotionally unsettling as well as tiring. The list includes people with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as regular introverts.

According to a new survey by the American Psychological Association, 47 percent of people experienced an increase in stress, 43 percent felt no change and 7 percent experienced a decrease.

According to mental health experts, a fraction of the population found the quarantine protective, allowing them to move into more predictable spaces, schedules, routines, and relationships. The experts warn that while quarantine has blessed the “avoidance” of social situations, the situation could change.

Doctor, a psychologist in Denver, expressed concern about many of her socially anxious patients. When the world opens up, that anxiety “will come back with a vengeance.”

In no way does she diminish the severity of the pandemic’s impact. Globally, millions of people have died, and the plague itself has caused severe grief and anxiety – for parents and children, medical workers and those just trying to survive economically. “The mental health industry struggles to keep up,” she said.

These sharp restrictions, however, reinforced the intense impulse to withdraw for people with severe anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Ms. Maikovich-Fong said that early in the pandemic, “these patients felt very vindicated.” Government officials encouraged people who feared contact with other people to follow their social norms.

Several kids returning to school or adults working remotely are already experiencing discomfort, she said.

“There are a lot of people with a false sense of security, who are a lot more comfortable than they were last year,” she said. I don’t think that’s sustainable.”

Children and teenagers are also experiencing this counterintuitive dynamic.

In a study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in February, 70 percent of study subjects aged 6 to 18 reported negative effects of the pandemic on their mental health. However, 19.5% of those in that age group showed some improvement, leading the authors to conclude: “Mostly worse; occasionally better.”

Anxiety and depression improved in some children with social anxiety and learning disorders. The stay-at-home directives may have provided relief from sources of stress, thereby improving symptoms of anxiety or irritability, according to a summary of the research by the Hospital for Sick Kids, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto and supported the study.

School can increase Ryan Fenstermacher’s social anxiety, a high school senior in Connecticut (who requested that his city of residence not be published). “Like group projects, I hate them – I can’t predict what they’re going to do, what they’re going to say, and I get anxious,” he said. “There is no way out.”

When he’s on Zoom, it’s different. He said, “You can mute people online, turn off your camera.”.

Returning to the classroom can be challenging for some students because they’ve become accustomed to being offline. An intensive therapy group in Mountain View, Calif., is tackling teenage mental health challenges, and the group has just added a new member as of mid-March: a 15-year-old, who started with the group this week to cope with social anxiety.

She appeared to have forgotten how to socially interact, according to her mother, who requested anonymity to protect the girl from embarrassment or bullying. According to her mother, returning to school would be terrible news for the adolescent without therapy.

The pandemic has caused many adolescents to suffer, according to Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Maryland. She said, “We don’t want to diminish that.” However, “there are some kids who are doing better than others.”

Students struggling in school now get more help from their parents and worry less about their performance in class, according to Doctor.

Lastly, there are the little ones.

Children will say, ‘My mom used to travel all the time.’ “She had never even seen me and she was so tired. Now my parents are home all the time and they play games with us,” Doctor said.

The pandemic revealed to some adults just how much anxiety they were experiencing on a daily basis. Public speaker and author Josh Bernoff, who lives in Arlington, Mass., said he was constantly stressed by traveling, finding meals on the go and making socially awkward conversation with people he didn’t know.

As a result, he says, all of my interactions are virtual, so I don’t have to worry about shaking hands or the awkwardness of face-to-face interactions.

“I don’t worry about what I’m going to do the next day when I go to bed at night,” Bernoff said. Life is predictable to him – like what time he has lunch and dinner and where it comes from. As much as I hate to sound paranoid, I like being near my refrigerator.”

He said he can’t wait for the pandemic to end – and to go out to dinner with my wife.

“This can’t last forever,” he added, “but for this year, this period, it has been a little island of stability.”

Research shows that anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic can disproportionately affect those with less stable economic prospects. In a study published in The Lancet in December 2020, more than 36,000 people in the United Kingdom experienced mental health challenges during the lockdown, but they eased as the lockdown eased. Some groups were more susceptible than others to mental health challenges.

Females and children, lower educational attainment, lower income, preexisting mental health conditions, and living alone or with children were all associated with higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms at the start of lockdown, the study found. As people acclimated and lockdowns eased, that began to ebb.

The anxiety-ridden people who experienced relief during the pandemic are probably in higher income brackets, said Ms. Maikovich-Fong. As a result, they are more likely to have jobs they can do remotely, which allows them to remain employed but with less stress than in the past.

The relief may not only be temporary, but also intensify anxiety as people attempt to reengage.

Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and an expert in phobias and anxiety, explained: “The more you avoid something that makes you anxious, the harder it is to do it.” When the pandemic ends, people with more extreme cases may find it much more challenging.

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