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Well, This Is Awkward: Social Interaction Post-COVID

Photo by from Pexels.

If all goes to plan, it might not be much longer before you’re standing this close to another person again. Does that make you feel … uncomfortable? You’re not alone.

While the US and the UK are widely seen as having botched their initial responses to the pandemic, their focus on spending on the vaccine has hurtled both to the front of the pack as many in the West begin what we hope will be our final lap with restrictions. The CDC announced last week that fully vaccinated Americans can travel at little risk to themselves without self-quarantine or negative COVID tests, unless either of those is required by their international destination. March closed with over 15% of Americans fully vaccinated, with more and more states widening access criteria throughout April. At the time of writing, almost 10% of people in the UK have had two doses of the vaccine. Bars and restaurants in England will be opening for outdoor service from next Monday, with the aim of all restrictions being lifted by the end of June.

There is a more than decent chance that both countries will enjoy a summer reasonably reminiscent of the old days. In Ireland, we will be waiting a few months longer for the benefits afforded by mass vaccination, but not by much. A return to the old normal seems to be popping up around the edges of the new normal we have lived with over the last year, and for some, it doesn’t look quite as rosy as it did in their memory.
A cartoon in The New Yorker seemed to strike a chord.

Dr. Tanya Jacob, a clinical psychologist in Pacific Palisades, California, specialises in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Over the past year, she experienced a marked increase in the number of people presenting with intrusive thought-style OCD. “Even the clients who had had this problem before the pandemic said it got far worse, and others had never had it before,” she said via e-mail. “My guess is it’s the large amounts of time alone with our own thoughts.” 

Such pandemic-specific anxiety stems from many issues, not just the unease about socialising again. Jacob notes it is also tied to worrying about contamination from the virus itself; mourning the year’s lost time, loved ones, support networks, and money; and concerns “about how to restructure their lives away from home after doing so much restructuring already.”

For those experiencing anxiety around the reopening, Jacob has two pieces of advice: “The first is start to ‘practice’ with seeing people one on one whom you know well enough to talk (or even laugh a little) with about all of the feelings that are coming up.”

The second, she says, is to remember that humans are pretty adaptable: “In my clinical experiences from before the pandemic, people surprised me both in how quickly they would become frightened of their own social circles when they hadn’t had a chance to see them for a long time, but I was also consistently surprised with how quickly they would ‘fall back into’ their own roles with people. I think the same will apply now for all of us, that the thought of it will feel much more surreal and scary than the action.”

It’s important, she says, to be patient and accommodating with yourself and others. “Remember that there are a lot of people quietly at every stage of comfort with this and that they have a right to move at their own pace,” she said. “Just because they can do more, doesn’t mean they have to if it doesn’t feel right.”

So if you’re scared of the water, don’t feel pressured to dive right in. You can dip a toe, and maintain your two-metre distance, until the water feels nice.

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