Feeling Anxious About Returning to Life in Public? You’re Not Alone

For some people, the stress of the stay-at-home orders being relaxed is more daunting than self-isolation

I still go grocery shopping about once a week. This pre-quarantine habit hasn’t changed much since California’s shelter-at-home order was issued March 19. What has changed, for me and countless others, is the emotional and mental stress public outings now create.

Being around others—especially strangers and crowds—has become an anxiety-ridden proposition. As much as we’re yearning to be with people again, we can’t help but think of the risks. Is this stranger’s cough the one that will infect me? If I visit my grandparents or my newborn niece, will I endanger their health?

The lack of a vaccine, the daily onslaught of new death-toll figures, and the various unknowns that cloud our ability to see what the near future will bring are wearing us down. “The meta message is the world is a much more dangerous place than we thought it was,” Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University, tells Los Angeles. But though we are right to stay at home and practice social distancing, Spiegel worries that “it’s completely disrupting all of our lives, in particular social support, which is one of the major things that keeps us mentally healthy and alive.”

“I haven’t had anybody come to the house,” says musician Izzy Heller, who has been spending the past few weeks with his parents in Encino. It has been weeks since he has seen friends, fellow musicians, or extended family. When a cousin invited him to visit her in West Adams—even if that meant standing far apart—”I didn’t take her up on the offer,” Heller says. The risk of infection was not worth it, “but I particularly don’t want to give it to my parents.”

For John Polatsek, a hotel concierge, the coronavirus pandemic has sent his germaphobia into hyperdrive. “When I get home, I’ll take off my jacket and throw it in the washing machine,” he explains. “It gets a wash, and then it gets a disinfectant rinse.” After washing his jacket, Polatsek throws the rest of his clothes into the wash, “so I’m not worried about contamination that way.”

Both Heller and Polatsek describe a routine of leaving recently purchased items in a sort of quarantine for two or three days. For Heller, grocery purchases sit in the garage for a few days before entering the house. For Polatsek, items sit in the corner of the kitchen. These approaches have become their new normal.

“It’s odd that the way we’re being forced to live now reinforces certain kinds of illogical behaviors,” Spiegel says, citing repetitive handwashing and complex routines for re-entering the house. But will we continue this way when restrictions are relaxed? Or will our anxieties loosen with them?

“I really don’t see myself going out that much anymore,” Heller says. If and when social distancing mandates are eased, he worries about playing shows at crowded venues. “I was thinking of not allowing a full crowd, maybe six people in the room and then broadcasting on Zoom or Twitch,” he says. “That’s how I would be comfortable doing a show before they have a vaccine.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s going to be many hugs or anything past a fist  bump for quite some time,” Polatsek laments. “I’m sure I’m going to alienate some people by how careful I am. But it’s not personal—it’s for their protection as well.”

As for returning to the hotel, “my guard is going to always be up,” Polatsek says, “but there’s going to have to be changes.”

According to Spiegel, our anxieties grow more intense as we continue to avoid their sources. For the time being, social distancing mandates have made this inevitable. We may not see a COVID-19 vaccine for 18 months or more. But one day the pandemic will end, and when it does, it might be hard for some to shed the social anxiety or germaphobia that has been building for months.

“Challenge yourself to re-engage with the world again,” Spiegel advises. “You will eventually build up enough experience that the world isn’t as dangerous as you feared.”

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