Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer
It’s summer, the world feels like it’s opened up again, and many people are feeling back and better than ever! Not to make our long-awaited return to normalcy into a downer, but the transition back might feel like a bit of a bumpy ride for many. Depending on your state and community, these transitions might have already happened for you, or maybe you’re right in the thick of it. Sometimes, it might feel like you just can’t get back to 100%, social interaction doesn’t come as naturally as it used to, or maybe social interaction causes physical and emotional stress.
After a year of distancing, some relationships outside of our immediate bubbles could have fallen by the wayside. According to a study, “The construct of social isolation includes both objective social isolation—the actual lack of social ties—and subjective social isolation—the feeling of a lack of engagement with others.” Re-entering groups of people and exploring social unfamiliarity can generate feelings of fear, even if it’s what we’ve been yearning for.
Obviously, fear held us all back for a long time. A study specifically on the topic of COVID-19 fear breaks down the experience into four different components: “(1) fear of the body/fear for the body, (2) fear of significant others/ fear for significant others, (3) fear of not knowing/ fear of knowing, and (4) fear of taking action/fear of inaction” (Heeren).
It’s important to note that psychologically, fear and anxiety are different. Fear is characterized as a short-lived, adaptive experience closely aligned with our fight-or-flight response. Fear is all about imminent danger and alarm. Meanwhile, anxiety is future-oriented and anticipates potential threats that do not presently exist (and might not ever exist). Where fear motivates us to run from threats, anxiety cautions us against potential threats, generating avoidant behavior. During the pandemic, most people experienced both known threats and uncertainty–fear and anxiety. The four fears listed above are largely mitigated because of loosened regulations and successful vaccine distribution. But, the anxiety of potential threats may be hard to shake.
After such a long period of loneliness, interactions might feel awkward, and reading social cues can be difficult–do we do hugs anymore? Maybe it feels like we’re spending time with an old friend and we’re getting to know them all over again. Maybe the ease of small talk is gone and the conversations are exhausting. Spending time in isolation affects the hormones and chemicals in our brains, particularly those associated with social bonding and stress. As a result, lonely people tend to have smaller amygdalas (the part of your brain that processes emotions) and tend to be more irritable or negative (Ro).
Because anxiety is an avoidant behavior, slowly taking steps to overcome newfound social awkwardness could be the right move. You could vary up your weekly activities to make sure you’re adjusting to a variety of environments. Maybe you need a coffee date before a huge cookout. Regardless, if the limitations of COVID have been largely lifted but the emotional restrictions haven’t quite vanished, it’s not necessarily because you’re not “doing this right.” The world is a little socially awkward still, and we’re all just trying to get back on track.
Heeren, Alexandre. “On the Distinction between Fear and Anxiety in a (Post)Pandemic World: A Commentary on Schimmenti Et Al. (2020).” Clinical Neuropsychiatry, vol. 17, no. 3, 2020, pp. 189–191.,
http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Alexandre-Heeren/publication/341252779_On_the_Distinc tion_between_Fear_and_Anxiety_in_a_PostPandemic_World_A_Commentary_on_Schi mmenti_et_al_2020/links/5eebc86a458515814a6aa01a/On-the-Distinction-between-Fear and-Anxiety-in-a-PostPandemic-World-A-Commentary-on-Schimmenti-et-al-2020.pdf.
Ro, Christine. “Why We May Have to Re-Learn to Socialise.” BBC Worklife, BBC, 23 Feb. 2021,