The Roaring Twenties will soon be upon us, social media and ad campaigns declare in lustful delirium. Slobber on strangers under a waterfall of champagne at SoHo House! Reunite with your distant cousins—in Ibiza! Swipe right until your thumb falls off! Get! To! Work!
The end of the pandemic is now mercifully in sight. For so many reasons, the unequaled suffering and sickness among them, this is incredible news. And while hardly anyone would wish for it to last a day longer than it must, for the socially anxious among us quarantine offered something rare. Those with the privilege of working remotely have had a moral duty to stay home. Aside from the occasional outdoor meetup, social lives have been on pause. And it’s a lot easier to feel OK about your own social shortcomings when no one else is doing much of anything either. Call it the retreat of FOMO.
I’m what you might call awkward. I also tend to be insecure. And yes, I’m anxious about it all. I’ve never even had an Instagram account, and yet I’m engaged in the perpetual internal monologue it seems designed to provoke in all of us. I spend half my life doing what I’m actually doing and the other half wondering why I’m not doing other things, or whether the things I am doing and saying are the “right” ones. Should I be seeing friends more or less? Did I say too much or not enough? Am I wholesome enough, striking the right balance? (The answer I usually land on: hahaha, nope!) I’m sipping on this toxic cocktail of social anxiety and perfectionism all the time.
Except for this past year, when lockdowns eliminated social expectations. Life became a bubble that no amount of social approval, from my inner critic or others, was worth penetrating. To be sure, a slew of new, far more terrifying anxieties seeped in: Will my family get sick? Will I lose my job? But as everyone hunkered down at home, the pressure mostly vanished, and my second guessing went with it. For the first time since becoming a social creature (somewhere around the bar mitzvah years), I wasn’t looking around. I was right where I was, doing what I was comfortable with and able to, and not judging myself for it.
Now that vaccinations are rapidly scaling up, a semblance of a “normal” life mostly safe from the threat of Covid-19 is coming into focus, and that has created the perfect opening for the voice in my head to make its long-awaited return. Should I be making summer plans? Have other people already made summer plans? Do my plans need to be twice as fun as ordinary summer plans? What about the virus? Will I be throwing away my youth if I don’t socialize—endangering others if I do? Am I really ready to be around that many people?
The impending reemergence is wonderful and exciting and miraculous—and really fucking anxiety provoking.
Over the course of the pandemic, four out of every ten adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a leap from one out of every ten in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics. But for those of us who ordinarily struggle with social anxiety, lockdowns and social distancing “could be the ideal situation,” says Lily Brown, an assistant professor of psychology and director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. When it’s come to “expectations about these social obligations,” she says, “the pressure is off in a lot of ways.” Although there’s been an overwhelming need for anxiety and depression services during the pandemic, Brown says, her clinic has noticed that patients who struggle predominantly with social anxiety haven’t been seeking treatment.
That’s likely to change. For many, myself included, the anxiety is hitting even before a shot enters the arm. “The anticipation of social interactions is often what’s hardest,” Brown says. “The anticipatory anxiety of what that will be like might actually be worse than the reality of how bad the anxiety actually is once it’s here, but it’s that buildup period that can be very nerve-racking for people.” Welcome to the buildup period.
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The good news is that we can mitigate these symptoms. The first step is to stay present. Easier said than done, but when you feel the future-oriented thoughts creeping in, Brown says, try to catch them and remind yourself not to worry about the summer until, well, summer. “When we’re thinking about the future we’re feeling anxious, and when we’re thinking about the past we tend to be feeling sad. And so the goal is, as much as possible, to try and stay just in the here and now.”
Above all we need to make agreements to be nice to ourselves. Richard Heimberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and former director of its Adult Anxiety Clinic, notes that this kindness will be especially necessary since the anxious and nonanxious alike will have some “rust.” Even the things that felt second nature in the Before Times, like commuting or working in an office, could stir up some discomfort after an entire year without practice. “The level of anxiety that we [all] feel in general is going to be elevated because of the health concerns and because of the rust concerns,” he says. It’s important to make sure any goals we set for ourselves takes this into account, and that we treat them as aspirational rather than prescriptive.
“If we expect ourselves to behave perfectly,” says Heimberg, “then we’re going to beat ourselves up if we don’t reach that standard.” For some, reemergence might be more of a slow wiggle out than a clean break through our shells, and that’s OK. “It’s about accepting that everybody else is as worried about what we think of them as the other way around. And it’s about giving ourselves the chance to simply be human.”
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With lives on the line, the threat of Covid-19 empowered many of us with the confidence to say no—to others and to ourselves. The few social outings I did manage to have in lockdown have fortunately come with an extra layer of sensitivity from friends and family. I did my best to provide the same to them. Perhaps most important, the circumstances led me to extend that policy of judgment-free acceptance to myself as well. And I’m not ready to give it up.
I don’t have to. That honesty with ourselves and others about what we’re comfortable with and what we actually want to do doesn’t have to disappear along with the virus. In fact, all the practice navigating conversations about what settings and activities we’re OK with, virus-wise, might just leave us better off.
“This pandemic has created language for people to start expressing how their comfort levels might be different from their friends’, and I think that’s an awesome start,” Brown says. “When the context is different, and the virus is less of a reason why you can't engage socially, I think people are still going to need to be setting those boundaries from themselves … Not that they should be saying no to everything, but that you should be saying yes to the things that could bring you joy.”
In a perfect world, I’d Marie Kondo the hell out of my social life post-vaccine—doing the things that make me happy and saying no to the things that don’t. I’d burst the pandemic bubble without losing any of my pandemic perspective. Of course, it’s never quite that simple. I’m still the same person. Expectations will inevitably sneak in. Occasionally I’ll do things I don’t want to, or I'll look around and wonder whether my decisions are the right ones. But hopefully, I’ll be a little kinder to myself along the way.
Going into quarantine wasn’t easy; more than a year into my hibernation from FOMO, coming out won’t be either. I’ll be rusty. I’ll feel awkward. Things that never felt difficult suddenly will, and things that always felt difficult might feel even more challenging. We’ll all move at different paces. Some of us will spring out looking like John Travolta hitting the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever; others will stammer and stumble, looking more like Austin Powers, slowly defrosting and a little disoriented. What matters is that we each accept our own way, and keep moving forward.
If you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, please consult these resources.
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