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Is Social Distancing Going to End Up Giving Everyone Social Anxiety?

Prolonged isolation will turn some of us into social butterflies and others into hermits

As an ardent introvert, I can kinda sorta appreciate social distancing. Before life revolved around containing the coronavirus pandemic, going outside exposed me to thousands of people, who, for whatever reason, needed to talk to me, a complete stranger, about everything going on in their lives from conception until now. Under social distancing, on the other hand, most people have been doing their damndest to stay the hell away from me during my periodic supermarket crusades.

I still loathe what the world has come to, though, and I acknowledge that social distancing might even be encouraging my unhealthy, reclusive behaviors. I already went out of my way to avoid people in public, and now I find myself literally scampering away from anyone who dares invade my personal space. Surely, anyone even marginally afraid of contracting the coronavirus feels the same.

As fears about contracting the spreading virus increase and estimates for how long social distancing will remain in place seem to stretch indefinitely, I wonder if everyone will become a little more like me — cloistered, standoffish and just generally apprehensive about random, possibly infected people getting all up in their personal space.

But it’s true, too, that absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and from a psychological perspective, it seems likely that people will be craving even more social gatherings and more of the personal touch when all of this is said and done. “Phobias tend to result from a single, traumatizing event,” explains psychologist Melissa Burkley, author of The Social Thinker blog. “Repeated exposure to a stressor doesn’t typically result in a phobia. In fact, repeated exposure to a stressor is the best way to eliminate a phobia. That’s because the brain is constantly rewiring itself, and over time, it generally adapts to new changes. Right now, everything seems new, because we’re learning to do things in new ways, including the way we socialize. But through these new behaviors, our brain is adapting and forming new habits. Eventually, the world as we currently know it will become the new normal, and as we adjust to our new circumstances, our level of panic and fear will start to reduce.”

As a result, people might grow more comfortable being alone, but also being exposed to others in a situation where exposure could mean contamination. “In terms of fearing other people, the opposite seems more likely,” Burkley confirms. “One of the strongest ways to pull people together is to give them a common enemy and a shared goal. This pandemic checks both of those boxes. It’s the first challenge in a long time that’s affecting people in the same way, regardless of their politics, race, gender, country of origin and so on. Even if we aren’t physically connecting with others, our sense of community is stronger than ever. That doesn’t mean that once this is over we won’t all go back to bickering amongst ourselves — the upcoming election almost guarantees that. Things will eventually return to how they were before the pandemic, but hopefully we can all do our best to hold on to that feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ for as long as possible.”

Psychologist, hypnotherapist and phobia specialist Adam Cox mostly agrees when it comes to the effects that quarantine will have on our population as a whole. “Most will go back to normal behavior, and some will want close proximity even more,” he says.

But Cox also adds that how people cope with isolation is highly personal, and that some of us — particularly people like me, who are already prone to social anxiety — could expect to develop even greater fears of social contact. “The long-term consequences on whether people will want to avoid others after social distancing is a distant memory will depend on the neural pathways and automatic unconscious habits that are established,” he explains. “The variables that will influence that will be the beliefs of the individual and the emotional intensity of any anxiety while being close to another stranger, either real or imagined. This can be reinforced even more with negative stories about infections.”

“My prediction is that up to 10 percent of people will continue to practice social distancing, even after the recommendations change, due to continued anxiety based around potential germs (a form of mysophobia),” Cox continues. “For a significant proportion, they’ll have continued fear of crowds and busy places for years to come.”

As for where that leaves me, well, I guess same old, same old.

This Is Life Under Quarantine