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Quarantine, Social Anxiety, PTSD, and Avoidance

Rachael has PTSD from being bullied. She likes certain anime because they offer emotional solace by showing great friendships.

Description: A man with a sad expression wearing a COVID-19 face mask looking out of a window.

Description: A man with a sad expression wearing a COVID-19 face mask looking out of a window.

Mental illnesses often come in pairs or groups. I have social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and depression. Bullying and social ostracism as a child made me afraid of crowds and social gatherings today. What was helping me in 2018 and 2019 was Meetup. I was venturing out more and doing more gatherings with strangers, with my wife at my side as a source of comfort. And it helped that she was willing to leave early with me if I was stressed, overwhelmed, or triggered.

Then, of course, came the year 2020.

When Illinois went into lockdown, my wife started working from home. I'm only side-gig employed. Staying home was easy and comfortable, and I loved having her here as well. I finally felt like I had permission to do things I hadn't made time to do before because of shopping and socializing. I could listen to all my audio books and catch up on my backlog of half-read non-audio books. I could work on my novel, learn digital art, learn Spanish, sign language, advance my understanding of the Japanese language. I was finally free of the pressure to be a social person. I thought that pressure had been holding me back.

My Lockdown/Stay At Home Experience

Three images of: language books with headphones, a pale blue piano, and a red typewriter.

Three images of: language books with headphones, a pale blue piano, and a red typewriter.

I did listen to audio books. I did read. I finished a painting, eventually. I tried to learn to whittle but didn't get far beyond learning the basic cuts. I made a hat with a ring loom, but didn't teach myself to knit. I learned some notes on the guitar, but am still not practiced enough to do chords or even basic songs. I didn't draw or do digital art half as much as I thought I would, and maybe am starting to not like it as much as I used to. I am learning some basic Spanish but gave up on sign language and Hindi. I didn't do much advanced Japanese or kanji practice, I think because my approach to kanji was too boring (just drawing them over and over).

I wasn't much more productive than my pre-COVID-world self, even though I was almost never leaving the house. It turned out, being social was never the detriment to my ability to pursue work, crafts, hobbies, and serious interests that I thought it was. Telling myself I didn't "need" to be social was just another outbreak of my oldest coping mechanism: When I was rejected by other kids, I would just tell myself I didn't need them. The classic, you aren't going to fire or reject me, I quit or reject you first. To this day, I struggle with rejecting or scorning people I maybe actually like, because of my own inner fears of being hurt and rejected or bullied by them.

When I read about introversion and the MBTI in college, I was enamored with the idea of the introvert as a romantic, mysterious, intellectual artist type. Really, there's nothing that special about not wanting to party constantly. I was just stuck in a college party culture where I felt special for not fitting in. I was studying, I was working hard. I was working out. Other people were blowing their minds away with pot and alcohol. But not me, I was special. I was an intellectual, and my mind was a special thing that was not to be tainted by the irrationality of the influence of others. (Thank Goddess I grew out of that arrogance eventually and started drinking and vaping pot, albeit still with a slight preference to do such things alone.)

Turns out, there's nothing special about introversion or extroversion. They're just ways social activities generally tend to make us feel. It didn't make me a genius to be scared to talk to sexy, athletic people. It just meant I was scared and that my brain had been taught some bad habits that I had to unlearn for my own good.

Also, I have difficulty answering intorversion and extroversion questions on personality tests, because so much depends on context. I don't like the thought of going to "a party" for its own sake. But tell me it's my cousin's wedding or my mom's birthday and I want to be there, for their sake. If I know someone and will have people I know and can talk to, I'm more able to enjoy a party than one full of complete strangers. But the personality tests you find online don't have that kind of nuance in the questions. Context is a huge determinant of whether or not I will exhibit introversion.

So, I don't really know if I'm an introvert or if I was just an extrovert who was so bullied, so harshly treated, and so hated that I repress my extroverted side, tending to focus on what happiness I can create for myself in the absence of other people.

So back to my lockdown experience. It's almost over for me. I'm vaccinated and my wife will be fully vaccinated soon. And it won't be easy to come out of my shell again. I've signed up for and later changed my mind and declined to go to Meetups. I signed up for a coworking space membership but can't always bring myself to go write there.

It feels like I had made progress in the winter of 2019 until February 2020, but sheltering in place for all of 2020 into early 2021 erased a lot of that progress.

Avoidance and Anxiety

Woman in a crowd with her hands over her face in distress.

Woman in a crowd with her hands over her face in distress.

Avoidance is a symptom of PTSD and all other anxiety disorders. It's a natural response to fear. When your brain decides a fear is rational, it rationalizes avoidance. But while it makes sense to avoid things that might distress you, it's not wise in the long run. It's better to try to gradually build up to conquering your fears (you can learn this with exposure therapy).

Your fears are also not at all rational. By practicing avoidance, we are in effect telling our feelings that we believe they are. We should, as hard as it is, try to do actions that tell our feelings we don't believe they are rational or grounded in reality. And they're not. PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and other anxiety disorders are just our brains overreacting. And while emotions are powerful, they're not impossible to stand up to. Or change.

I just worry that all this having to avoid social interaction has created a "new normal" where I'm too comfortable avoiding social interaction all the time. Going back to normal for me won't be as easy as flipping a light switch. It's more like adjusting to a shower that is too hot or too cold and not what I'm used to.

And, I think it will be like that for many people. A slow adjustment full of trial and error.

© 2021 Naomi Starlight


Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on May 05, 2021:

Thank you for your appreciation and sharing the article! I'm also always glad to hear I'm not alone.

Kathy Henderson from Pa on May 05, 2021:

Thank you for addressing this topic. There are many casualties of this pandemic. Just this week, I talked with a friend expressing the struggle of re-entry and isolation of this season due to their PTSD. It will be nice to share this article and let them know they are not alone.

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