pandemic social anxiety and loneliness
November 15, 2021 12:00 AM   Subscribe

I have been feeling lonely. Haven't we all? So, I have tried reaching out more to individual friends and showing up to some new group things, and found my anxiety spiking so much I couldn't be myself and/or needed to cut it short. I am doing therapy, have recently increased dosage of Ativan, and have been doing mindfulness regularly for years. Undiagnosed, but probably on or adjacent to the spectrum. Any ideas of what else to try? More inside.

I had a best friend breakup shortly before the pandemic (we had been drifting apart in terms of our interests over the past few years until there just wasn't enough in common). And a romantic breakup too (we dated for almost a year without introducing each other to family or friends, so more like fwb I guess).

I did get on the apps and have a couple of in-person pandemic dates that seemed promising early on. But when it came down to actually meeting up without masks, I thought about their covid risk profiles, and I couldn't do it, so broke it off and got off the apps.

Up through early fall, I seemed to be doing pretty well. Natural introversion. Outdoor hangouts. Virtual stuff. But now there's a lot of "back to normal" pressure, and I still need to be safe. I'm not sure my covid concerns are the only reason I'm anxious, though.

The ways things have gone sideways in the past month or so:

1. A group gathering that was going to involve eating outdoors changed to eating indoors after I got there. I don't feel safe eating indoors with others. I didn't say anything because the host and everyone else stated they wanted or were ok with eating indoors, so all I could do was decide if I wanted to stay or not. I stayed a while, breathing through the anxiety, but left pretty early.

2. Same sudden decision to change outdoor to indoor, but with an individual friend who wasn't part of that group. The friend was hosting. My mind started going blank and it was hard for me to hold up my end of the conversation, so I needed to leave. That level of stress has never happened before with that friend who is usually very trusted.

3. A religious group that I've visited before, but not for a while. They were covid-safe, and the service was fine. But by the time it ended, I was feeling so much anxiety (just from being around people, I think), I couldn't stay for the social part.

4. An ideal anxiety-minimizing scenario for me: a group of people meeting outdoors for a special interest, I've never met them before, the activity was relatively structured, and the group that showed up was less than 6 people. Pre-pandemic this type of thing would actually energize me and make me think I'm not totally introverted. But I was breathing through anxiety the whole time and got worn out and left early.

5. A civic thing where I really care about one of the topics. People sitting near me were making catty comments about others just barely loud enough for me to hear. Overhearing a mean conversation would never have bothered me enough to leave a place before, especially because I didn't know the people or whoever they were talking about. But I left right after my topic was addressed because I was feeling sensitive and anxious.

I live alone. I have a furry pet to snuggle.

I have long-distance friends and family who are my best supports right now, with texting and phone calls and video calls. They are not sure how to help because my anxiety has never been this bad before. I have some co-workers I like on an acquaintance level and chat with lightly at work. I have chatted with my neighbors very briefly.

As I mentioned, I'm already doing therapy, medication, and mindfulness. My meds doc and therapist both seemed kind of alarmed at how bad things have gotten for me at the last appointments. Before the past few weeks, I was more of a "worried well" person probably. Therapist in particular is asking questions like "what if covid is still around 5 years from now? Will you still be masking indoors?" I mean, that's the root of the problem isn't it, that people who I rely on for support (like the therapist) are treating indoor masking as something only excessively anxious people do.

Hot baths with Epsom salts, long walks in nature, and at-home solo dance parties help. Another thing that seems to help a bit is watching people be nice to each other on TV. I normally don't watch stuff like Virgin River on Netflix, but the dialogue like "I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to worry." "But I'm here for you. I want to help." that I normally find too cheesy, is comforting.

Tl;dr I need in-person interaction, but not unmasked indoors. But now I seem to be so anxious that even when I get those opportunities, I can't handle being around people. Am I missing something? Ideas for what else to try?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There is a phase in child development (usually around the toddler age) where kids engage in play 'alone together'. They may be side-by-side, completely ignoring each other, each happily sorting blocks or whatever. It's called 'parallel play'. The kids are in their own world, and haven't developed the skills yet to effectively interact with each other. They're learning to notice, to pick up cues, and gain awareness of others and what they need. It's a precursor to directly engaging with each other, which is too intense. It's a safe way to get along while also dealing with all the stimulus of the broader environment.

Basically, my hot take for the world right now is that Covid and lockdown knocked us all back a bit and we're essentially toddlers again, reintroducing ourselves to the world and each other.

Arrange play dates to be alone together with people you can safely ignore and work your way up from there. Masks are very helpful for this, too.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:44 AM on November 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

I feel for you. I have felt a lot of this too. I'm sorry that your friends haven't respected your needs and risk tolerance. It might be worth telling them how you felt.

How would you feel about getting food or a drink at a restaurant/bar/coffee shop with good outdoor seating, by yourself? Or with a friend who you know is committed to sitting outdoors. Maybe a place you could become a "regular", going often at the same time?

Another option is regularly spending time in a busier park (or dog park, if applicable?). There are people to nod at or greet but not the same pressure of close interaction. Not like a planned meetup like you describe. Or a shopping trip or takeout food pickup at the same location regularly?

For me getting to know the neighbors a bit with me talking to them from the sidewalk as I walk by on a dog walk, and them being in the yard or on the porch, combined with occasionally having a cautious dinner together has been nice and not anxious. Same with cautious family interactions that are time limited. Anything that's more "uncertain" = anxious.

And not sure if this helps for you, but for me it helps to talk with people up front about how they feel about the pandemic so I know their risk tolerance and can plan accordingly. It is absolutely okay to leave early if you don't feel comfortable.
posted by Red Desk at 1:22 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think you should seek an updated opinion from your med doctor, or a second opinion from another re. the increased dose of Ativan.

Rebound anxiety from benzodiazepines is a thing, and their use for long-term management of anxiety (vs. short term triage during stressful periods or to manage intermittent full-blown panic attacks) can be problematic. If it's not already been discussed, ask about the appropriateness of an antidepressant, rather than more anti-anxiolytics, to get you through the difficult social transition period we’re in.
posted by protorp at 3:23 AM on November 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

Finding safe spaces that you can acclimate to enough to be comfortable there and feel some measure of control (basically as Red Desk described) is a great place to start. If you can set the stage to your own comfort level by picking one or more places to make your own- "your bar" or "your restaurant" or "your park", and then begin to create your own interactions in those locations, you greatly reduce the need to be obliged to adjust/conform to on-the-fly parameters in other peoples' locations. Bring people into your spaces instead of the other way around. Hopefully they can understand and support you in this. Best of luck to you!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:25 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I live somewhere with a high vaccination rate, relatively low transmission rate, and a renewed indoor mask mandate... and I still almost bailed on the grocery store the other day because I had thought I'd be okay in a looser mask but actually like a third of the way through my list I started feeling massively anxious and like I, ironically, couldn't breathe normally. My partner and I kind of laugh about questions like "are you still going to be masking in five years?" because, uh, MAYBE?? Would that be the worst thing? All of us collectively making one another sick every year in big predictable waves as well as just randomly throughout the year was, in retrospect, kind of gross and really inconvenient. (And worse than that for many, of course.) Are masks actually all that bad, if they're the price of avoiding low-level grunge picked up from strangers in public?

But. I do see the value in being able to do stuff like not panic over a perfectly good surgical barrier mask instead of a KN95. And of being able to eat at a restaurant without needing a patio and halfway decent weather. And of hanging out with friends in people's homes. I just see the process of getting back to that as a "graduated exposure" kind of thing. I did in fact make it through the grocery store, albeit with only the essentials. You did in fact make it through some of each of your examples! Just because everyone else is ripping their masks off and breathing all over one another doesn't mean we have to too. Apparently we collectively always should have had a better baseline level of awareness of the risks of close social engagement. Granted, right now some of us are probably calibrated too far the other way, but it's been a very tough time and it's okay if letting go of some of that is a process and takes time itself.
posted by teremala at 3:51 AM on November 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

I was going to say that a change of meds or dosage can definitely send things haywire. Perhaps you are still adjusting to the changed dose, or perhaps Ativan isn't the right medication for you- can you talk to your doctor about this? I think the fact that you're so uncomfortable even with what you have logically decided is safe indicates that this is really about anxiety rather than your adjustment to Covid-19 as an ongoing social reality; you have found ways to meet your social needs in safe and responsible ways, but your anxiety is impacting your ability to actually do them.
posted by Balthamos at 3:56 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

There is a phase in child development (usually around the toddler age) where kids engage in play 'alone together'. They may be side-by-side, completely ignoring each other, each happily sorting blocks or whatever. It's called 'parallel play'.

I'm a severe introvert and even before covid this is how I do 80% of my "social" time. Most of my outside the house hobbies are things I enjoy completely solo: taking my dogs to the park, going to movies, going to the symphony/opera, going to museums. They're populated places, I'll probably exchange a few casual words with strangers, but I'm there by myself with no one to occupy my attention but me. There's no one there I owe any of myself to. It's like methadone for the hermit lifestyle. I'm still getting what I need, but I'm not indulging in habits that are going to set me up to be overwhelmed either due to overstimulation or only being comfortable on my couch under a blanket.

When I'm thoughtful about how I spend my time I have plenty of energy left for the people I care about when I do spend real socializing time with them. It's just a very small actual-time portion of what I spend outside my home.

Like I said this is me all of the time, covid or no, and from my perspective you're trying to do too much. Try going out to eat by yourself a few times before you do the whole shebang.
posted by phunniemee at 5:15 AM on November 15, 2021 [14 favorites]

When I’m feeling very anxious but need social interaction, I find habitat-restoration work really helpful. Planting trees, removing invasive species, things like that. Local groups usually hold half-day events on the weekend.

It has lots of nice aspects:

- Social interaction (e.g. “break into teams of 3 and each team grab a tree”) but not TOO much, you’re mostly just working silently alongside each other (kind of like the “playing alone together” concept mentioned above)

- Being outdoors and moving your body

- Learning a new skill and meeting new people

- Contributing something positive to the world

FWIW you’re definitely not alone with the social anxiety / COVID nexus. Covid comfort level adds a really difficult additional layer for socially anxious people to navigate and I’ve been struggling with it too.
posted by mekily at 6:16 AM on November 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

I'm the same as phunniemee, and agree completely with their take. Five social events in a month or so sounds like a lot to cope with under present circumstances. That's all the more so if you actually did the things in the same order you listed them. Had it been me, the first two experiences would have thrown me badly and dented my confidence, and that would have made me more tense going into the less challenging things, which would have set me up to fail because I'd have been on a hair-trigger... which sounds like exactly what happened to you.

Something that might help is to try mentally rehearsing possible scenarios before the next time you meet friends to eat. If you've already considered that they might switch it to indoors, and decided whether or not you think you're up for that and how you would handle it in either case, then you won't have the SURPRISE UNEXPECTED CHANGE! reaction on top of everything else.

But yeah... this is really hard. Covid anxiety + social anxiety + the sheer jarring weirdness of watching other people behave in a way that just doesn't make sense under the circumstances. Every time I try to move a little out of my comfort zone, a little closer to what my life used to be, I end up dealing with a panicky meltdown sooner or later. It's not just you.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:24 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I hear a lot of desire to interact with others, but there is a new anxiety of "risks of covid" on the other side.

I know a lot of us don't quantify those risks. We've read the news, we know that generally there's risks. We know that generally, eating indoors with others is pretty unsafe, or being close to other people is unsafe.

But, one thing I've come to realize is that people in places with really low rates are making decisions (in april, when there was under 1/100,000 cases) in my area based on anxiety, as if it was during a surge with larger risks.

Instead of relying on "instincts" based on the news, I highly, highly recommend allowing to make these decisions for you. is a bunch of scared people in California that are very cautious - but they also quantified their cautiousness.

Here's a example scenario - at total US. I recommend entering your local area.

What this says (if you expand calculation steps at the bottom) is that eating at a restaurant, indoors, has a TOTAL RISK of 0.07% of you catching covid. (Assuming you and your friends are vaccinated). That's likely much lower if you are in a major city, or if you get your booster shot.

A 0.07% risk means that you could go out to eat, every week, for a year, just like that, and you would have a 3% chance of getting covid. Because I'm healthy and vaccinated and isolate after interactions, the risk of me helping spread at rates like that are infinitesimally small. (Also, when I switch the numbers to my actual city, the number drop to 0.005% or 0.5% yearly).

Your anxiety around being outside with people, put that into microcovid. Should you be anxious? Try to see. If the microcovid site says it's under 1,000 microcovids... you should find a number to help make decisions for you, so you can move forward.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:52 AM on November 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think it was absolutely reasonable that you felt anxious when you thought you were participating in something with a specific risk level you had agreed to beforehand, and then that changed on you abruptly. I think at least with your close trusted friend it would be absolutely fine to tell them that, or at least to make sure next time you plan that you say "I really want to stick to an outdoor hangout this time and moving forward."

Do you know of any friends who are at a similar place re: risk tolerance as you? I wonder if it might be helpful to identify one person you can have some sort of low-stakes regular plan with - in my case it's one friend I have a weekly Zoom lunch with, and another I see for a takeout-and-TV night once a week. The routine makes it less anxiety-provoking, and keeping it low-stakes makes it no big deal to skip a week if e.g. one of us has had an unusual risk recently (e.g, my friend went to a sibling's wedding last month, so we skipped a couple of TV nights until she was past any potential exposure).

I wonder if perhaps, if you had one or two solid reliable social interactions like that in your life that you knew would be okay for you, it might either feel better to experiment more with other options, or feel less urgent to do so? If you can solve the immediate problem that might help you get to a steadier place to start thinking more long-term about other things you can try to help build up your tolerance more generally for those times when you do want or need to go out into less familiar social spaces.
posted by Stacey at 7:53 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am on the spectrum and have fairly serious social anxiety, and was having these issues earlier in the year. This is the only thing that has worked for me:

Deliberately accepting that socializing might kill me, and that risk is totally acceptable.

What I mean is that I do the math about Covid risks and decide what activities to partake in based on reasonable risk. I wear my mask almost everywhere, and I don't participate in very high risk activities where the antivaxxers hang out. But after I decide to do a thing, I make a point to accept it has a very small chance of killing me before hand. This is just like driving, which is relatively high risk but I do it anyway because of the benefits.

I don't think you will be able to convince yourself that socializing is totally safe, because it isn't. Once I've gotten it over with and accepted my small but reasonable fear of death, I find it easier to just move on and be semi-normal with friends. Of course if something unexpected happens I might freak out, but that's not really a new problem
posted by JZig at 7:55 AM on November 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Just in case your brain happens to work similarly to mine, I'm going to dump some ideas here:

If I am getting regular contact and physical touch from another person, my social anxiety is reduced overall, and I can enjoy other socializing more. This may not be available to you, and I'm glad you have your pet, but instead of rushing into seeing a lot of different people you might be better off working your way up slowly- only trying new things after you have a few positive experiences with one person.

I realized a while back that I don't get much from larger social events or from social events with strangers. So I just opted out. This limits some of my friendships, but that gives me more time to focus on developing relationships that are a better fit for me.

This may take time to develop, but I've become firm and secure in what I do and do not want to do, so it's easy for me to say no to situations I don't feel comfortable with. And this can sometimes change others' behavior; like when you visited your friend, instead of going along with what they wanted (going inside), they may have been perfectly willing to accommodate your need to be outside. Sometimes it's helpful to anticipate these conversations, plan out what you will say, and actually practice saying it out loud in advance.
posted by metasarah at 9:13 AM on November 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

I can second the suggestion of being at a dog park (if you have a dog). It is just the right amount of cordial interaction with the option of standing off to the side alone or focusing on throwing the ball to your dog that I needed during this pandemic. And I had a morning crew at two of the parks I went to, so I really did feel connected.

Although I don't live alone and can only imagine what that's like during the pandemic, you can add me to the numbers of people who might still be wearing a mask 5 years from now. When my dad heard my reasons for continuing to mask and avoid the Thanksgiving gathering, he joked "at that rate, you'll be wearing a mask for the rest of your life!" - I told him "Well, we all learned to wear clothes, and for the majority of human history, people did not dress the way we do now. Wearing a mask in public is not that different." I'm a hold out. I also work in public health, and I've decided as of a week ago, that I will no longer offer the reasons why people should be wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary gatherings. Instead, I say "I'm just not there yet. I'm not comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant just yet."

The other thing I'm doing is organizing a game night by zoom. In this case, I host a zoom-based version of the British panel show Would I Lie To You? I take great joy in bringing together two teams of 6 people - but mixing and matching from different eras in my life (my high school English teacher, a friend from work, a friend I've been doing political activism with in the past 5 years, and union organizers I worked with 25 years ago, my 20-something nephew and a friend in her 60s that mentored me in 1994 and a couple I met at the dog park.) It takes some prep work, but I feel connected while doing the prep work. I write the lies. I remind, with a particular person in mind who will have to "sell it" as a true story. People to send me their true stories ahead of time. I share links to the show on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Britbox. I wrote the instructions/game play.

I also had an anxiety attack when I friend asked me to go apple-picking and it turned out to a be family-fun park with scads of unvaccinated children running around, and full-on Trump supporters proudly standing close in all the lines. I quickly asked if we could go to the nearly empty corn maize while I regrouped, and then we headed to the orchard and picked apples. I stayed masked the entire time. (There was a time, last fall, when "family gatherings outside" accounted for the biggest spike in cases in my county - which I get to hear about because I work with the people in public health tracking COVID - but which didn't make the local news.)
posted by vitabellosi at 10:41 AM on November 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

It's been so hard hasn't it? I can't even imagine how much harder for those who live alone.

Has your physician told you that you must be especially strict about COVID or is this a personal preference? My response to your question would vary greatly based on that information.

Unpacking physiological risk with your MD might be a good place to start. I'm not saying your concerns are not valid BUT that's also what anxiety is. It tells us something is dangerous even if it isn't dangerous at all, or is less dangerous than we believe.
As bbqturtle said above, finding a way to understand your actual risk in certain scenarios may help. That is one of the ways I was able to reduce my panic when this all first happened. Once I saw my true risk I was able to talk to the part of me generating all this anxiety, and make decisions that were not primarily from anxiety.

The first time I drove my car to the store after the initial lockdown I had a huge panic attack. I think I became mildly agoraphobic in the time after because I was so isolated. To me, this is an issue to address with my own brand of exposure therapy (once I'm not immunocompromised because that changes my risk in a factual sense). It's something you could ask your therapist about if you're curious. It can be done very structured with clear feedback as to what kind of progress you're making.

I have social anxiety that is less severe when there's a topic to gather about, or a physical activity to do, vs free form getting together which for me is just the worst. Maybe finding something with a physical anchor would help, or something where the focus isn't on talking. I don't know what that looks like, maybe hanging in the library or sitting at a dog park or joining a line dancing club.

Also, it's ok to share your preferences too. If everyone else is doing that, then the social expectation is that you get to state a preference as well, even if it's a minority opinion, unless you are the only very new person in the group but even then in some groups they value honoring a new person above the veteran people so your opinion would have weight in those situations too.

Especially in a 1:1 situation! If your friend switches to indoors you can say, "I understand that is what you want but my anxiety about being indoors with people is pretty high still. How difficult would it be to keep our original plans?"

Think of what exact behaviors are scary and why. Eating, talking and singing unmasked is a problem? What about touching hands but masked? Is it impossible to handle an indoor situation if talking or singing are not likely to be prominent? Is it impossible to handle an indoor situation if you are wearing a KN95 or other mask third party tested to perform incredibly well at protecting the person wearing it? Why is that type of scenario still anxiety provoking for you? Unpacking it and making it granular might help you find other ways to address your social needs. The microCOVID website referenced above gave me some good ideas for what various factors go into the change in risk levels.

Something else to keep in mind: At the end of the day, avoidance makes anxiety worse. Benzos do too. (I say that as someone with anxiety who takes Xanax from time to time.)* It's not always clear-cut whether our anxiety is based on facts or assumptions/cognitive distortions. Anxiety based on facts of a situation with high risk of harm or death is not something to "overcome" (at least not in the same way) the way we might talk about overcoming anxiety that is mostly the brain inflating or distorting or making assumptions.

I would highly recommend that you get a sense of what your facts-based risk is in different scenarios, and try to remember the more you give into anxiety in what is otherwise likely a safe situation (the ideal social event you described for example), the more you're confirming that you "should be" anxious. This ties into the exposure therapy I discussed above.

It makes a lot of sense to me that a global pandemic could literally alter our beliefs at a deep level, such that being around people feels universally unsafe, or being around unkind people just adds to the threat level rendering it impossible. But I would gently suggest that the answer is to find ways to socialize that are probably safe even if your anxiety says otherwise, if you want to recover sooner. If your recovery is not the priority then disregard that idea.

*Buspirone has helped my anxiety greatly and I actually requested it specifically as it's an older drug so many prescribers don't think about it.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

that people who I rely on for support (like the therapist) are treating indoor masking as something only excessively anxious people do.

Do you like your therapist otherwise? I only ask because I find this reaction from them somewhat bizarre just because indoor masking where I am is seen as more or less normative in situations where it's possible. That is, not everyone does it but more people do it than don't and it's definitely not seen as a thing that only people at high risk do. I am also assuming you've been vaccinated and possibly received a booster shot, but if not I would suggest that.

And, I am not entirely unlike you. I have anxiety that has been spikey over the past 18 months. I am adjusting to being WAY less social. My life is not back to normal in any real way. And I don't think of that as weird, I think of it as normal. I do have a partner who is long distance and he gets regularly tested as part of his job so that puts my mind at ease but we didn't see each other in person for over a year. I live in a place with high vaccination rates but which has also been having some COVID surges. I, too, would react strongly to outdoor events being changed to indoor.

I'm really now at a place where JZig is. That is, in many ways I'm more at risk from getting in my car or my shower than COVID. But COVID is scary, to me, so I am often not making rational by-the-numbers decisions. But as far as human interactions, I have in-neighborhood walks. I often see the same people. I make chitchat more than I might have before. I try to stay interactive with local civic things which enhances my ability to do random chitchat. I have as-needed benzos that work for me, I'm aware they don't work for everyone.

So a few other suggestions: if it's approaching winter where you are, consider getting a sun lamp or other SAD-assistance. If your ativan is as-needed consider taking it before events that generally have your level of risk tolerance (your religious group, maybe another civic thing and not sitting by the mean talkers), consider walks in places more likely to have other people, consider a little more chitchatting with neighbors or thinking about holiday decorating (if you celebrate) or something that is a more outwardly social thing to do even if it's not at-the-time interactive. Above all realizing that even though loneliness is not a great feeling, sometimes it's not a problem to be solved in the immediate timeframe, but a longer-term thing to think about. Sometimes anxiety make it hard for us to sit with a feeling of unease because our brain is saying DO SOMETHING TO MAKE THIS FEELING STOP. Mindfulness can help us sit with the feeling and learn that it doesn't always have to change right then and there. Snuggle your pet and understand that how you are feeling is not way outside the range of normal even though it does feel kind of crappy. Best wishes finding a path that makes you feel more comfortable.
posted by jessamyn at 12:30 PM on November 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

I mean, that's the root of the problem isn't it, that people who I rely on for support (like the therapist) are treating indoor masking as something only excessively anxious people do.

Is that the problem? Scenarios 4 and 5 make me think that this isn't just a covid thing (unless I'm misreading and you're specifically worrying about covid in those situations). It sounds like you're having anxiety around social interactions more generally.

Is Ativan your only medication? I ask because I have anxiety and have a prescription for both Ativan and Prozac. The Prozac I take every day, and the Ativan I only take when I'm in a specific situation that I know is going to spike my anxiety, like flying. If your meds doc is alarmed, have they suggested the possibility of a more general anti-anxiety medication? If not, it might be worth talking about.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:18 PM on November 15, 2021

It seems to me that this is social anxiety more than covid anxiety. Even the covid anxiety is tied to feeling like you can't speak up, can't represent your own wishes, can't defend what you want. And that's what I think made it inflammatory to you to hear the therapist assume you won't want to mask in five years - I don't think you saw a path to say, "yeah, I think we should probably mask indoors basically forever, it's a great tool, all else being equal." (Maybe if you're talking to someone who needs to read lips...?)
posted by Lady Li at 2:44 PM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

As many others have said, I relate to much of your post, and I have MANY friends who also relate if that is any consolation. For context, I am a high anxiety person to start, have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder at times, and this whole thing has been a freaking perfect storm for my pre-existing psychological profile. You are not alone.

For me, I've come around to seeing my anxiety as mainly two things. 1: very risk averse pandemic anxiety because for real this is STILL in pandemic mode, and as much as things have improved with vaccines and all that jazz, it's not insane to still be nervous in an active pandemic whether or not some people are less risk averse than me and 2: some lizard brain "stranger danger" from no longer being habituated to being around people generally, especially groups of people in indoor spaces, or densely packed groups. I really think on some level my subconscious brain is just going ALERT ALERT UNKNOWN CREATURE APPROACHING BE CAREFUL because it's been so long since I've consistently been out and about with unknown creatures.

All that said, what works best for me is to be honest about where I am with people, and only push my boundaries in scenarios that work for me with those I trust. Have you tried telling your friends where your edges are? Also, perhaps you can be the person who plans and invites people within your sphere of comfort? Yes, it's important for you to push on your anxiety edges, but you also need to calm down your fear brain, so doing TOO much pushing isn't going to be great yet. Seriously, take it slow. Also, try not to reject or refuse your feelings - if you start spinning out and being annoyed with yourself for feeling off, it just compounds the problem.

Something that might be helpful for you - I recently listened to an anxiety episode with Bill hader of a podcast called learning lots. I don't know how you identify but I'm a cis het female, and I found it really helpful to hear a man....a rich and famous and handsome man at candidly about his own anxiety. There's a lot of stigma around being an anxious person in this world, especially for women, and I felt a lot less "crazy" after listening to it. He also mentioned Jeff Bridges once told him to wrap his arm around his anxiety like a good buddy, which I thought was very sweet and think about often. Reminds me to be tender with myself about my fears, and ask others to join me in that.
posted by amycup at 4:42 PM on November 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

One other thing you may want to keep in mind. Exposure therapy is not forcing yourself to do a thing while feeling shitty. Exposure therapy is about learning how to change the feelings you associate with the thing. So if you've only been going out when it's scary, try going out sometimes under your own power when it's low pressure. Do something with an end point that makes you think, that was nice and I'd like to do more later, instead of pushing it until you're burned out and miserable.
posted by Lady Li at 5:57 PM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

We have been very cautious around COVID because of some health vulnerabilities in our kids. Our parents have either not cared or not understood our concerns. When we meet up outside, they inch closer and closer to us, even when we ask them to step back. When we ask them to put on a mask, they do so grudgingly, and it slips beneath their nose repeatedly.

Once, we had a friend over in our backyard. Her family is not very careful about COVID, but she knows that we are. So she went out of her way to make us feel safe. She kept her distance, put on an N95 mask anytime we got near, used hand sanitizer extensively, etc.

It was SO NICE. For once, we felt protected. Cared for. Safe. Like if we weren't on high alert, we would still be OK. We could let our guard down a little.

The experience of being around my friend made me realize why it was so stressful to be around my family. I wonder if you could find people who are either as cautious as you are, or who would care enough to go beyond their caution level to make you comfortable? It makes a HUGE difference. Our parents love us, but they suck at this, and we can't trust them. Are there people you can trust?

I really hope so! We haven't found many, but wow are they the best. Good luck to you!
posted by equipoise at 5:57 PM on November 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Thinking of you with lots of care.

Like jessamyn and Lady Li above, my head kind of spun around to hear that question from your therapist. While I realize it’s not exactly the same, it feels analogous to questioning someone who wanted to use condoms and still felt anxiety about HIV even after the release of PREP. We all know it feels better, freer to do what we want without having to manage safety protocols, but choosing to engage in safety protocols even though risks are lower is not the same thing as pathological anxiety - especially when there is still risk, lower though it may be.

For what it’s worth, I have been paying a lot of attention to the people who ask those kinds of questions this past year: I have not seen a single one who has credentials in public health. We would all like things to go back to normal. The epidemiologists I’ve seen weigh in on this situation concur with the little background I have in public health, which says that we can’t go back to that particular normal, and that even a new normal, where COVID is only as risky as the flu, is a long ways away.

On what you might do differently: some people have decided to take on more COVID risk - you haven’t. Neither of those choices is *correct* - we each get to decide what our risk tolerance is. I get the sense that some of your anxiety in these situations has come from feeling like other people would judge you for having stricter standards about COVID risk than they do. They might - it would suck, but that is on them, not on you. Would it help to think of this like similar situations people face when their friends have different risk or moral tolerances?

Someone who doesn’t drink meets up with friends in a park: the group decides to go to a bar. A group of friends decide to go to a comedy club: the talent starts making jokes that offend one of the group but not the others. In those kinds of scenarios, advice is often to formulate and practice a plan for behavior that affirms your values without judging others. “Ah, that change of plans isn’t really my style - you go and have fun! I’d love to join the next time we meet up in a park.” “Hey, everybody - I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to head out. I’ll see you all soon!”

Would it help you to formulate and practice scripts like this for what to do in these kinds of situations, where you feel confident and affirmed to be acting in line with your own values and risk tolerance? It’s still totally reasonable to feel shitty about other people not having the same values or risk tolerance as you, but it might, e.g., ease the internal tension around making things work with that particular group in the moment. Shitty feelings can be processed with a therapist and some perspective later.

Is any portion of your own anxiety about the feeling that you are being unreasonably cautious? Non-drinkers aren’t being anxious for not wanting to go to bars; folks who are nonplussed by offensive comedy aren’t anxious for wanting to get away from an offensive set. You have felt anxious when hanging out with people who have different COVID risk tolerance and who want you to do things outside of your risk tolerance: that feels like a pretty logical recipe for anxious feelings. If I am understanding correctly about when you might expect to use Ativan, I hope that you would never, ever have to take a med to reduce your own discomfort at being asked to do something outside of your risk tolerance - swallowing your own values so that someone else can be comfortable.

This also might be relevant for thinking about how you want to address this in the long-term. People who stop drinking often find themselves hanging out less with drinkers, and seeking out communities where social activities don’t revolve around drinking. People who realize that their aesthetic and moral values are different than their friends’ may find themselves seeking out communities that *do* share those values. Those are hard changes to make, and it hurts like hell to lose even parts of friendships because of these kinds of differences. In my own life, I am STILL learning to prioritize my own values over other people’s comfort, and have lost some people who were very dear to me because of differences like these, but the pain of those losses and the frustration of working to find people I’m better aligned with have been so, so worth it.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 7:22 PM on November 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

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