Social Distancing Has Lessons About Social Anxiety
Are you social distancing with what’s going on in the world? I read recently in an article sharing that there are some silver linings in all that is going on in the world right now. While I don’t think anyone would argue that the outcomes for vulnerable individuals are good right now, collectively as a whole, I can see the argument being made that this is a correction that needed to happen.
One of the points of the article was that this situation will make us pause and think about those who already live with oppression every day. Most of us have our freedom and take it for granted; some people live in a prison-like state everyday already; our new normal is their everyday. And of course, this made me think of the socially anxious.
And so I was wondering: What could social distancing teach the rest of the world at a time like this? When everyone is social distancing, are they not experiencing a bit of what it’s like to live with social anxiety?
Below are my thoughts on this topic, in no particular order. For anyone whose ever wondered what it would be like to have social anxiety, maybe this will give you some insight. While social distancing isn’t the same, it closely approximates some of the experiences people who are socially anxious go through every day.
It Affects All Parts of Your Life
What aspects of your life have been affected by social distancing? Probably everything. And that’s the way it is with social anxiety too. Our world is social, and so to navigate it with a fear of people (or with a need to stay away from them) makes everything harder. Have you been staying home and rearranging your whole life to avoid people? Then you’ve experienced what the socially anxous do on a daily basis.
There Is No Shoulder to Cry On
For most people in life, when there are struggles, you find people to lean on. You might look to your friends for support or lean on a spouse in your time of need. For the seriously socially anxious, there is no support network. For the most part, these people are cut off from society even more than you are now.
It’s Not a Choice (But People Think It Is)
Have you crossed the street to avoid being within 6 feet of someone? Have you not gone down an aisle of a grocery store because there was already someone there? All of a sudden, you have no choice but to avoid people. But in this case, most will understand why you are doing it and that you have no choice. In the case of the socially anxious, those choices are made every day, and further isolate and distance them from you. You probably think it is a choice that they are making, when in fact it’s an overwhelming fear that they are managing. Stop thinking it’s a choice to be socially anxious.
Have you felt awkward practicing social distancing? Has it felt weird to keep your distance from people? Imagine that being your every day. The continuous awkward juggling act of trying to keep people at a distance without having to tell them what’s wrong and why you are doing it. Socially anxious people aren’t necessarily naturally awkward; but the whole of their situation makes them look that way.
It’s Anxiety-Provoking In Itself
Has social distancing made you feel anxious? The need to avoid people is an anxiety-provoking act in an out of itself, that feeds on itself in a vicious cycle. So if you’ve noticed your mental health suffering during this time; you’re probably feeling some of the same things those with social anxiety feel on a daily basis. This is temporary for you, and you’ll move on. Those with a social anxiety or an anxiety disorder stay trapped in that cycle.
It’s Part of a Bigger Problem
What you are doing right now (social distancing) is part of a bigger problem that we are all working together to prevent. Social anxiety is part of a bigger problem too. The behaviors that you see from the socially anxious are stand-alone entitites. That person isn’t ignoring you beause she’s a b*tch, and that person in the interview isn’t quiet because he doesn’t know the answer. These little tells are all part of a bigger hidden problem. See if you can see it and be compassionate.
It Holds You Back in Life
In few months (we hope), your life will go back to normal and you will resume what you had started. Not so for the socially anxious who have been living this way their whole lives. You can go back to work, go back to seeing friends, go back to planning your future; for the truly socially anxious, their lives are still on hold. For many, this means no work, no friends, no spouse, no future.
They Think A Lot About Other People
It may not seem like socially anxious people consider the thoughts and feelings of others. As though they are wrapped up in their own world and distanced. When in fact, for most people with social anxiety, other people, or at least how we appear to other people, permeates every thought that we have. It’s not about being distant in a real way; it’s about a preoccupation with distance that makes us constantly think about us in relation to other people.
They Need Compassion
There isn’t a ton of compassion for people with social anxiety. Are you failing to be compassionate to yourself right now? It’s possible, because it seems too easy. All I need to do is stay at home and avoid people. How hard could that be? Turns out it’s really f*cking hard, right? Now, imagine that is your life, every day for the rest of your life. Would you have compassion for someone in that position? Can you have compassion for the socially anxious?
Life Goes On
Some socially anxious people get by in their own quirky ways. Yes some suffer endlessly and do not make their way in life, but for the high functioning among us, you might never know. But don’t make the mistake that that means things are easy; on the contrary every day is a struggle (much like yours is now). But life must go on, and so it does, under this dark cloud of socail distancing, not much different than what you are experiencing.
And yet, it’s different for the socially anxious. Once this is all over, you will probably come out of your homes feeling renewed and with a sense of freedom and going out to do all the things you’ve missed out on. Meanwhile, the socially anxious among us will continue on, most likely feeling more anxious than ever after this period of ever-more forced isolation. So, the next time you think that social anxiety can’t be “that bad,” please think of this time in your life, and then multiply it by 10.