anxiety around return to normal

Loosening COVID-19 restrictions may ramp up social anxiety

July 26, 2021

Research & Innovation

The University of Richmond expects to begin fully in-person operations the week of Aug. 2 and has loosened restrictions for individuals who are fully vaccinated following CDC and Virginia guidelines. Like many organizations, however, the path forward may be bumpy given reentry anxiety.  

“Some people will continue to be uneasy about the shift back to ‘normal’ social life,” said Don Forsyth, a leadership studies professor and a social and personality psychologist. “That discomfort may be greater for those who don’t hear the call of a crowd so loudly as others.” 

For introverts, for example, the demands of a social life are just that: demands. “The reduced level of interaction experienced during the pandemic better suited their preferences, so they naturally feel uneasy having to socialize like a gregarious extrovert.”  

And individuals who personally experienced hardship and loss during the pandemic will also likely remain on high alert when reentering social settings, Forsyth said.  

Others, though, are comfortable with returning to pre-COVID levels of social interactions, including heading to the gym to work out, dining in restaurants, and holding meetings face-to-face in conference rooms. These are activities some people missed a great deal. “They have no qualms about getting back into the swing of things,” Forsyth said.  

However, even people who adapted to the isolation of COVID-19 may not be excited about rejoining the herd. “The pandemic caused many people to rethink their priorities and lifestyle choices,” Forsyth said. “Many people learned to find new sources of satisfaction, and some came to recognize that their time could be better spent in pursuits that did not require so much continual social engagement. The shift to ‘normalcy’ could imperil those newfound gains.”   

Returning to the way we lived before the pandemic also means a return to many sources of irritation and stress that were minimized by enforced isolation. “During the pandemic there were fewer disappointing restaurant meals, less time spent in traffic jams, rarer bad hair days, and less laundry,” Forsyth said. He expects it will likely take individuals time to get back into the habit of coping with the daily hassles social interaction creates.  

While there are no easy solutions to the return to the pre-pandemic state, Forsyth said following mechanisms to cope with a loss may help. “Acknowledge that the return to social life is stressful and not necessarily a cause for celebration — no matter what the bon vivants say,” he said. “Accept that even doing things that you once enjoyed a great deal, such as attending a sports event or party, may not trigger the positive emotions they once did.”  

“Crankiness may be the norm rather than happy relaxation — at least for a time,” Forsyth said. But maintaining strong social connections with others may be the cure. He also offers one last tip, “Don’t forget to pet the dog more frequently.”