Social Anxiety in a Pandemic

I walked into the grocery store with a bare face. I felt everyone staring at me as I searched for other maskless people to make sure I wasn’t the only one. I was surprised at the relief I felt to be rid of my mask, but also self-conscious after being required to wear one for over a year. 

Being fully vaccinated and the mask mandate lifted, I am no longer required to wear a mask in most places. Freedom. There is nothing political in my viewpoint about masks. This is about my social anxiety disorder.

People can have a variety of social anxiety disorders, many of whom have had a harder time in a masked society. I suffer from agoraphobia – literally translated, “Fear of the marketplace.” I become stressed in places like stores, auditoriums, and even church. Any crowded place will elicit panic and I’ll have to make a quick exit. Having additional stress, like a global pandemic, makes it worse. Wearing masks has been a big part of that stress.

With masks on I can’t see people’s facial expressions, and they can’t see mine. Facial expressions, being a big part of communication, limit one’s ability to detect a smile or scowl. Yes, “eye smiles” have become a thing but a small curve of the mouth doesn’t evoke an eye smile. Someone flashing a small smile at the store indicating, you go first, isn’t obvious. 

The Masked Church

Church has been one of those difficult places for me. My family visited a new church a couple times before the “stay at home” order. Online services in a new church just weren’t the same because it wasn’t possible to meet new people and see if this is where we wanted to begin building community. As soon as they began in-person services I was there. But I still didn’t meet people. 

Every Sunday the pastor invites us to take a few minutes to greet the people around us before the sermon. This is something that generally makes me uncomfortable in “normal” times. While others flocked to their friends, glad to catch up for the week, I stood there feeling awkward. Flashing a friendly smile to break the ice didn’t do much. On occasion, being unfamiliar to them, people approached me and introduced themselves. But the inability to see their mouths made it difficult to hear amidst the noise behind muffled masks. Already having a hard time being in the busy room, this heightened my anxiety all the more.

The day I walked into church and saw the majority without masks was liberating. I finally saw the whole faces of the few people I had become familiar with. I was finally able to smile at my neighbor and, with their friendly expression, gain the courage to introduce myself. Soon after people stopped wearing masks, I recognized someone I had only met previously on Zoom. I probably wouldn’t have known who they were behind a mask and we were both excited to meet face to face. 

At long last, I started to feel comfortable in church.

Social Distancing

I can’t tell you how many times in my pre-pandemic life I have given up my place in line because people were standing too close. Please give me at least an arms length distance, two would be even more appreciated!

Now, people maintain around six feet of distance in lines. Being in public already being stressful and COVID adding to the stress, this was a glorious welcome change. As people become more comfortable I begin to loathe this part of life going back to the way it was. Despite the relaxed mandates on masks people still maintain some distance. So far.

Keep an Open Mind

This pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. For some it has been completely devastating. For some it has been completely life altering. For some it has been more of an inconvenience than anything. For others it has elicited mental health problems that didn’t previously exist. For people like me, it has exacerbated an existing illness. 

I hope my perspective has opened your mind to how this pandemic has affected the people around you and given you the ability to extend grace and understanding.