Rachel Whalen, a 35-year-old kindergarten teacher in Montpelier, Vermont, has always felt anxious in social settings and around large groups of people. Even when around people she knows, it takes time for her to feel safe and comfortable. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, her anxiety only increased.
“My coping strategy for my anxiety is to gather information, and there was so little information to gather,” Whalen tells Vogue. “In addition to social anxiety, I deal with a lot of anxiety around my health and the health of my family. I can become overly preoccupied with thoughts of us getting very sick and/or dying. Having a new disease to worry about only increased this anxiety.”
But as shelter-in-place initiatives were enacted across the country, Whalen’s anxiety began to wane. She was able to remove herself from the stressors of the “real world” and find solace in safely quarantining with her husband and daughter. “For someone with social anxiety, the chance to stay home and not have to put myself out there was welcome,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot I didn’t enjoy about the experience, and I didn’t have to stress about social interactions.”
But now that all 50 states are beginning to “reopen” in some way, the safety, security, and reprieve that lockdown provided Whalen is crumbling. While she missed seeing her friends, extended family, and kindergarten students, she had grown accustomed to being away from people and living without the anxiety these social interactions often created. “As stay-at-home orders began to lift and things began to reopen, I felt my anxiety rise again,” she says. In many ways, Whalen is about to face her toughest COVID-19–related challenge: finding the capacity to cope with a new version of her anxiety as she goes back into the world.
Whalen is hardly alone. A survey conducted by the Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape Project found that 71% of Americans are “more concerned by the government lifting social-distancing restrictions too quickly” than too slowly. And since nearly half of Americans (45%) say COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health—in a country where about one in five people have a mental illness, and where anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, affecting more than 40 million people—the nation is poised to experience a mental-health crisis as people across the country grapple with returning to “normal life.”
“I felt better when the country was shut down,” Deja M., a 30-year-old registered nurse living in a suburb north of Los Angeles, tells Vogue. “But I understand people need to go back to work. I’m just afraid there is going to be a second, even worse wave.”
Deja, who has anxiety, OCD, and asthma—putting her in the high-risk group for contracting COVID-19—says she has only been outside of her home a handful of times since her state started reopening. “I always think about what things that I may have to touch while out, or any potential points of transmission,” she says. “I make sure that I never leave home without my masks—I usually wear two masks, an N-95 mask and a cloth mask over it—gloves, disinfectant wipes, and disinfectant spray.” Since she suffered a miscarriage in the midst of the pandemic and has had to attend follow-up appointments alone, without her husband, her anxiety—which she says has always been part of her life—is now debilitating.
“I literally do not want to go out my front door,” she explains. “It took me two days to build up the courage to walk to my mailbox and go to the store to get my dog some dog food. I don’t think my anxiety will ever go away completely, but I hope to find a new normal for myself amidst this pandemic.”
Finding, or, perhaps more aptly, building, that “new normal” will take a substantial amount of time. As a mental-health professional who specializes in reproductive issues, I have spent my entire career listening to patients work through complex emotions to find healing after trauma in order to create a future that is more manageable than the overwhelming reality their anxieties construct. An anxiety disorder is not “shyness” and it is not something a person can just “get over.” The complications that arise from an anxiety disorder—like low self-esteem, negative self-talk, self-isolation, substance abuse, and poor social skills, as listed by the Mayo Clinic—can make it even more difficult for those suffering from an anxiety disorder to seek help and support.
Learning how to manage social anxiety as the country continues to reopen will be key to maintaining mental health, and that process will look different for people depending on their health history, circumstances, and past experiences. For some, medication, telehealth psychotherapy, and online support groups can prove beneficial. For others, simpler acts like mindfulness, meditation, exercise, keeping a journal to help document particular sources of stress and anxiety, and abstaining from drugs or alcohol can also help.
“Right now, [my psychologist] is having me focus on breathing techniques and ways to calm my mind and body down when it goes into anxiety overdrive,” Donna Stokes, a 42-year-old freelance executive producer living in Rockaway, New Jersey, tells Vogue. Stokes says there was a “beauty to being isolated,” knowing that she and her immediate family were playing by the rules. But now that the country is reopening, she is tasked with trusting people she does not know—an exercise that is anxiety-inducing. “Going back into the world means trusting that everyone will do their part,” she explains. “If I could, I would stay at home longer, let everyone else figure out the kinks, and get back to me. But I guess nobody wants to be the guinea pig in this situation.”
A shared sense of uncertainty and anxiety rode the coattails of the COVID-19 pandemic as it ravaged the United States, and that same uncertainty and anxiety will remain long after this public-health crisis has ceased. For those who already suffered from social anxiety, reentering the world will be particularly challenging. Acknowledging those challenges, instead of overlooking or belittling them, will be step one in ensuring the country isn’t plunged into an even greater mental-health crisis. As we forge our way through the unknown and towards a “new normal,” we must prioritize mental health at every turn—in our local communities, and at a federal and state level. Improving access to mental-health experts, especially in Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus alongside the crisis of police brutality, and making mental health care more affordable, is a start towards a healthier future, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
Organizations across the country are already doing the work to ensure communities most impacted by COVID-19 can seek adequate, affordable mental health care, like the Loveland Foundation, which funds therapy for Black women and girls, Trans Lifeline, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the “overall mental health of transgender people,” and This Is My Brave, an organization working to end mental-health stigma through storytelling. Local and federal politicians are also encouraging people to address their mental-health needs, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who urged New Yorkers to visit The Mental Health Coalition’s website, call the New York State Emotional Support Hotline, and find additional services at Headspace, a website that provides science-based meditation and mindfulness practices that partnered with Governor Cuomo to meet the specific needs of New Yorkers. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is also urging the Trump administration to address the rising mental-health crisis in the midst of the pandemic, calling for “full federal support for anyone who is coping with the mental-health ramifications of the response to COVID-19.”
“I know my anxiety is here to stay,” Whalen says. “I also know that my anxiety is not a constant; it’s a variable. It changes based on a variety of factors. However, this period in our history has had a profound impact on everyone. I don’t think it’s possible to go through a collective experience like this and not be changed in some way.”