What Impact Has the Pandemic Had on People with Social Anxiety Disorders?

Published May 24, 2022

The Coronavirus Pandemic halted social activities as we knew them for billions of people across the globe. Quickly, stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines took the place of most in-person exchanges. Mundane interactions like grocery stops, cafe runs, and even weekly religious functions became virtual events. Millions of students graduated in their own homes, and common entertainment like live music shows were canceled. Over two years in, it’s understandable that many of our social skills are a bit rusty. Covid-19 and the pandemic have significantly changed how we socialize, or if we even have the opportunity to socialize at all. It’s no wonder recent studies show significant increases in social anxiety since the pandemic began. But how has this millennium's most consequential global virus affected the already growing population with a social anxiety disorder? Let’s delve into some of its most significant impacts and changes.

The basics of social anxiety disorder

Today, 15 million people or about 7 percent of the U.S. have Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). More generally, an estimated 12.1% of U.S. adults experience social anxiety at some point in their lives. Once called social phobia, SAD is an anxiety disorder characterized by discomfort and fear around social interaction and judgment from others. SAD has a high rate of comorbidity with other mental disorders, meaning there’s a higher likelihood that someone with SAD will also have mental illnesses like depression and other anxiety disorders.

While SAD is equated to general shyness, the two are not synonymous. SAD is a serious mental illness that can cause significant impairments in daily life. SAD symptoms can range from physical effects like blurred vision, nausea, and shaking to avoidant behaviors or compulsive, negative thoughts about oneself or their surroundings.

The biggest pandemic factors

Decreased social interaction over long periods has been proven to increase overall anxiety. A study featuring isolated astronauts showed us that sharpened social skills are like a muscle that can atrophy. Humans have evolved to need social interaction. Regardless of whether someone has social anxiety, they can experience atrophied social skills leading to socially anxious symptoms.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been several social distancing orders worldwide, forcing people everywhere to suspend everyday social interactions. Billions have been given no choice but to isolate at home or only interact with a few other people within their prospective bubbles. Along with prolonged isolation, there is persistent anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 virus, even during slower transmutation periods in the pandemic, or as more and more people become vaccinated and maintain lesser chances of catching COVID-19, a fear of exposure to the potentially deadly virus prevails.

Now coming into the third year of the pandemic, a new anxiety-inducing factor exists. Several surveys show increased stress around lifted pandemic restrictions. Many people, especially those who already struggled with social anxiety before the pandemic, worry about how we’ll all adapt post-pandemic. Readjusting to a new routine can be a jarring concept for people who struggle with social anxiety, especially since there are many elements around the pandemic they cannot control.

Finally, mask mandates have taken a toll, especially in countries where mask-wearing is not a common cultural occurrence. Masks are necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus, but studies show some negative social effects due to the elimination of several facial nonverbal cues. Some people may find interactions more uncomfortable when they cannot read the person they are speaking to or who is speaking to them.

Groups affected most

The physiological impact of COVID-19 is extensive. Depression and anxiety rates have increased up to four times more than before the pandemic. According to the CDC, parents with young children, males, and Asian Americans (due to early stereotypes about the coronavirus) showed some of the highest increases. However, young adults and adolescents (13-25 year-olds) seem to be the most directly affected by pandemic-related social anxiety.

Much of this concentration in effect is potentially due to the many transformative experiences in teenagers and early adult years. For example, instead of teens building social skills in school and experiencing some of the social milestones of youth like graduation, they have been forced to stay home or opt for virtual hangouts if that option was available to them. Several studies expect an increase in SAD as the world returns to typical social structures.

Easing the post-COVID transition

Though an increase of SAD may be on the horizon, there’s a silver lining worth noting.

The rapid incline in SAD cases as well as other mental illnesses has worked to place a spotlight on the need to prioritize mental health. The New York Times reported an increase in mental health resources in schools and universities. For instance, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is asking professors to look out for warning signs of socially anxious students, and the same is true for many other institutions across the U.S.

Also, discussions around mental health have become more commonplace in general. Mental health companies like Cerebral and meditation apps like Calm have even featured popular commercials amid the pandemic promoting mental wellness. Often, mental health breakthroughs begin with the recognition of a problem. As the culture shifts to a more open conversation about social anxiety and other mental health issues, those struggling may feel more inclined to seek help.

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