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When the Pandemic’s End Means the Return of Anxiety

For people who were already anxious before Covid-19, the limitations of the pandemic offer a sense of control that they are reluctant to let go

by Peggy Drexler for The Wall Street Journal April 1, 2021

Some three or four months into the pandemic, Gail Denesvich, a 45-year-old mother of three in Westchester County, N.Y., had happily accepted her new normal. Her three-hour daily commute in and out of the city had been eliminated; her kids had settled into their new routines. Socially anxious by nature, she found that she actually performed better at work over Zoom than she ever had in person. “When I heard in November that a vaccine was coming, I started worrying when the change back to normal would be,” she says. “I read an article yesterday about the Johns Hopkins doctor who believed Covid would be gone by mid-April, and I immediately felt anxiety.”

Anxiety levels as a whole have increased during the pandemic. Data compiled in December by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 4 in 10 U.S. adults had developed symptoms of depression or anxiety by the end of 2020, a sharp increase over the results of a comparable survey conducted in the first half of 2019.

And yet for many, particularly those who already identified as anxious before Covid-19, the limitations of pandemic life have offered a sense of control that’s allowed them to feel more at ease than they have in a while. The defining characteristics of anxiety include a fear of doing something wrong, awkward or different, says Bruce L. Thiessen, a clinical psychologist in San Diego. But over the past year, the whole world has been turned upside down, and there is no “normal” to have to live up to.

Many are relieved by the lack of choices and the ability to engage with others almost entirely on their own terms. And they’re not sure they’re ready for it all to end. “Staying in place for these people represents a sense of security,” says Dr. Thiessen. “The fact that so many others have been avoiding social interaction also gives them the sense that they are not alone with their preference for isolation.” Many with obsessive-compulsive tendencies have found that their rituals for finding safety have been not only normalized but even idealized during the pandemic.

Mike Nicosia, a 23-year-old New Jersey-based blogger who has suffered with anxiety his whole life, says, “Once the pandemic took over in March 2020, I felt a weight lift off my shoulder. Questions and worries that I had used to have during pre-pandemic life had become distant. Suddenly, everyone in the world seemed to have one major concern: the virus. For once, I was not alone. I feel a bit of bittersweetness about the end of quarantine.”

For many, Covid-19 has served as a built-in excuse, an easy way to say no, says Dr. Dori Gatter, a psychologist in Hartford, Conn. “Fear of getting Covid is real, and accepted,” she says. “But many people are using it as an excuse to practice extreme behavior. The positive is that many people are learning how to have boundaries and to take care of themselves better. The downside is the many aspects of life—safe life—they’re missing in the meantime. And what will they do once it’s over?”

Tom Winter, a 35-year-old New York City HR tech recruitment adviser, hasn’t seen his best friend of many years since March 2020. “He doesn’t leave his house,” says Mr. Winter. “He still has his groceries delivered. He even refused to attend his grandma’s birthday because he doesn’t trust his other family members are following the restrictions.” Although Mr. Winter hopes the friendship will survive, he feels his friend’s absolutist approach has caused a rift between them. “I respect that he doesn’t want to get sick, but he’s also very judgmental of other people,” he says. “He gets furious every time I go out, even when I follow the rules. I do believe in following Covid restrictions, but I miss my friend.”

Taking an absolutist approach means assigning zero weight to all risks other than the medical one, points out Talya Miron-Shatz, a decision scientist and visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge. “This, in fact, is what every news outlet has been doing for almost a year now,” she says. “We see counts of dead, sick, hospitalized, but not of unemployed, lonely, anxious, or just losing it because so much has been taken from us—company, theaters, and mostly peace of mind. Then there are the health hazards, as people have been avoiding routine care because they feared catching Covid. These costs need to be calculated individually. There’s no easy way to quantify them, which means it’s no wonder that some people ignore them altogether, minimize cognitive effort, and just focus on Covid.”

Dr. Gatter says that her absolutist clients are panicking, because the Covid excuse may soon be seen as overreaching. “With those patients, I talk about how this is a really good opportunity for you to practice getting comfortable with having boundaries,” she says. “A lot of people took this time to look at what they were doing out of obligation versus what they wanted to be doing, but many of them used the virus to do the work for them. Now comes the harder work where people have to speak their truths—or slip back into the same behavior as before.” For people who aren’t getting together with their families, she says, part of it is Covid and part of it is they didn’t want to get together with their families. “It’s a way to create a boundary without having to say what’s really going on,” she says. “But now they’ll have to create that boundary themselves.”

Dr. Gatter is optimistic that many more socially anxious people now know what it feels like to be socially confident; she hopes that post-pandemic they can build on this experience. She cites one introverted patient who used to dread leading meetings but now, when they’re conducted virtually, looks forward to them.

Clayton Risher, a 54-year-old investment banker and consultant in Fairfield, Conn., would never have described himself pre-pandemic as someone addled with anxiety, but he used to take propranolol—which his doctor called a “stage-fright drug”—before a big presentation. He hasn’t had to do that during the pandemic, and he expects it will stay that way. “I have so much more perspective, and the desire to come off as perfect in my pitches and presentations has given way to a profound desire just to be human,” he says. “The things that used to create fear in me are not what they were to me anymore. But most of all I think that everyone can now relate to having some level of fear and anxiety.”

by Peggy Drexler for The Wall Street Journal

—Dr. Drexler is a New York City-based research psychologist and filmmaker and the author of two books about gender and families.