As we remove our masks with a sigh of relief and dip our toes in the social waters, we might discover that it doesn’t feel as good as we expected it to.
Well, maybe removing our mask does. Talk about a breath of fresh air! But resuming our normal schedules, getting together with friends again, and picking back up where we left off can actually bring exhaustion and anxiety if we’re not careful.
Psychologists and sociologists studying our return to normalcy post-isolation are predicting that at the very least, we will re-assess our priorities, and at the most, we will suffer from tiredness and anxiety.
Alexandra Werntz, a clinical psychologist in Virginia, said, “Even people who weren’t socially anxious before, a lot of us got really rusty. What was normal pre-pandemic is no longer normal for a lot of us.”
Particularly introverts are struggling to leave their comfort zones after so much time at home with their closest family members. For them, the pandemic was a break from normal daily stressors such as socializing at work and being surrounded by people. Now, after more than a year, they have to muster their courage to return to a world that is largely extroverted in nature.
Workplace relationships are another source of anxiety. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to make small talk, whether at the coffee or the copy machine, and we may not want to anymore. Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Duke University, explained, “We’ve realized that there’s a certain portion of our social interactions that were never all that rewarding.”
Even those that were, such as friendships, church small groups, social groups, and fundraising events may not be as necessary as we thought to our overall happiness. Many have discovered that they haven’t missed these interactions and don’t necessarily want to jump back into them.
That’s where saying no is key. For more than a year, we haven’t had to decline an invitation or beg off seeing someone. Now we will, and psychologists say it’s perfectly fine to do so. Our brains are wired to maintain approximately 15 social connections, and that includes family and friends. Easy to stay under than number during quarantine, but not so much when everyone wants to see us again after a year of absence.
“Now there’s pressure on people to come back out just as there was pressure to stay home,” said Rebecca Adams, a sociologist at UNC Greensboro. “We’ll have to accommodate more and more casual relationships.”
That won’t necessarily come easily. Since the pandemic hit, people have had a lot of time to think. They’ve reassessed their lives, ended relationships that weren’t working, and found ways to entertain themselves. Some have struck up new hobbies or found the simple pleasures of life to be much more rewarding than whatever they were chasing before. For them, returning to pre-pandemic behaviors might be the opposite of what they truly desire for their lives.
“I don’t know that there’s been another time in modern history that we’ve all had time to go home and think,” said Leary. If you’ve discovered that you like a slower pace and more time at home, Leary recommends getting comfortable with saying no. It’s perfectly fine to tell your friends that you are slowly easing back into socializing. It’s also okay to back away from activities that feel more like obligations that enjoyment.
Psychologists predict that the time we’ve had to think will change the way many of us look at life moving forward. They believe that we will cut our social interactions by about 20 percent and maintain some of the lifestyle changes we adopted in 2020.