As COVID Cases Decline, Some People Are Having Trouble Letting Go of Social Distancing

Person jogging in locked down mall in Milan, Italy, due to coronavirus lockdowns
Credit: Flavio Lo Scalzo - Reuters / stock.adobe.com

The pandemic did a number on a lot of people’s psyches. A Harvard report published in February found that 36% of all Americans felt “serious loneliness,” due in part to social distancing requirements. But now, as vaccines become widespread and many companies begin to urge workers to start preparing to return to the office, there’s a cadre of people who are finding it hard to let go of the comfort of social distancing.

Stranger danger became a very real thing for millions of people in 2020 – and even seeing friends and family members could be a nerve-wracking affair. So, the thought of facing co-workers on a sustained basis is causing some people to freeze.

The American Psychological Association reports that nearly half of the American population is uneasy about returning to in-person interactions – regardless of the vaccination status of themselves or the person they would be talking with. And 46% of adults said they do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic.

“It’s been engrained in us for over a year to play it safe,” says Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist and co-founder at consulting firm Thrive Leadership. “It’s going to take time to get back to where we were before, in terms of employees being close to each other.”

The uneasiness is widespread enough to have an official designation: COVID-19 Anxiety Syndrome. It’s not a lot unlike PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. And one study purports that as many as one in five people suffer from it. For people who have had COVID, the fears could be even more pronounced, says Swody. Their more acute experience makes the fears a lot more real – and those can be hard to overcome.

“This isn’t people who want to work at home in their pajamas...It is legitimate PTSD for people who had COVID or who had to isolate entirely for weeks,” she says.

But back to that name. COVID-19 Anxiety Syndrome might sound big and scary, but there’s actually some power in giving those difficulties a name. Naming can normalize a trauma. It lets us identify it and recognize emotional roadblocks – and start to assemble coping skills for those.

And, in some cases, just forcing ourselves back into work routines will calm some of those fears. Consider it the emotional equivalent of getting back on the bike after we take a tumble.

On the flip side, since COVD somehow became a politicized health crisis, naming these concerns runs that risk as well. Offices where political differences are thick and run close to the surface could be even more traumatic as skeptics scoff at people’s fears or who are diagnosed with the syndrome. 

The other complicator in the process is people are being asked to do a trust fall back into pre-COVID life while the virus is still threatening. Getting used to water cooler chats during the day, when the evening headline is about the growing risk of variants such as Delta and Lambda can cause emotional whiplash.

The best way to combat that, says Swody, is by accepting that we’re only responsible for ourselves and leaning into guidance from healthcare officials, recognizing the science clearly shows that vaccines protect us from illness and help prevent transmission.

“We cannot control other people,” she says. “In companies that encourage, but don’t mandate, vaccines, there has to be trust that people who weren’t vaccinated will wear masks. We can’t be asking people for their vaccine card every time we have a meeting. Focus, instead, on general numbers of vaccination in the area. Know that companies have encouraged it. And that there have been plenty of opportunities to get one.”

If you suspect you might suffer from COVID-19 Anxiety Syndrome, another good idea is to use some of the tools that have long been helpful in dealing with anxiety.

Get lots of rest. Exercise. Get fresh air. All of those basic steps do wonders to help combat stress and anxiety. They won’t make the return to the office completely stress-free, but they will help you cope. And there’s some additional good news. Those office conversations you’re wary of could be therapeutic in their own way.

“Water cooler chat may be awkward at first as people’s small talk skills are a bit rusty, but not for long,” says Swody. “Once they see each other in-person, employees will be eager to connect and re-connect with colleagues and hear what’s going on. Anecdotally, I’m hearing from employees who have already returned to the office that they spent much of the first days back talking and catching up.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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