Lockdown has provided relief to people with social anxiety. The ban on socialising outside of our bubble means some no longer need to force themselves to go out even when they really don’t want to, or feel guilty about avoiding plans.

Sam lived a reclusive life even before Covid-19. He admits he was the type of person that is “notoriously hard to pin down”, and even if you did he was flakey and vacant. Despite his dread, Sam would force himself out of the house to be “social”. But each time he did, he would find himself obsessively checking his watch and dreaming up plausible excuses for why he needed to get out of there.  

The outings would leave him feeling upset and drained. So eventually, he stopped going out.

Over the last couple of years I realised that for whatever reason I don't actually enjoy hanging out with people, including my family and friends, in real life. So I stopped doing it to myself.”

“My social anxiety manifests in such a way that maintaining conversation face-to-face is scary and daunting and difficult. It does not feel easy or natural, and so I vastly prefer socialising over text, email, chat, or even the telephone at a push.”

Sam isn’t his real name - he would only share his story anonymously over email. His mum is the only person he doesn’t mind speaking on the phone with.

He was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when he was just 12 years old. Now 32, Sam reflects on how his reluctance to socialise in person got in the way of maintaining relationships, but also how quickly that changed since Covid-19.

Unfortunately a lot of my older, close friends are old-fashioned luddite types who don't like engaging over these platforms, so I have drifted away from most of my better friends. Two of them actively rejected me because they felt that I was ‘not putting any effort into the friendship,’ despite my often-ignored attempts to start text conversations.”

Sam felt a sense of “shame, guilt, and loneliness” because the way he was comfortable socialising didn’t meet others’ expectations. But since New Zealand went into lockdown, he no longer feels any pressure to see people in real life, and more importantly, people are more willing than ever to reach out to him on social media. 

At long last, talking online is not seen as lazy or a sign of being unmotivated to preserve a relationship. It’s accepted as quality socialising, because it’s all we have.

“Prior to lockdown, I was stressed, physically anxious, depressed, suicidal, and ashamed. Now I am extremely relaxed and clear-headed. I even feel happy and content. Ironically I have been able to be a lot more social during the lockdown than I was during normal times, and even reconnect with old friends.”

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maquire says lockdown is a “reprieve or safe haven” for people living with social anxiety. It has forced everyone to take a timeout from the “hustle culture” where we are constantly weighing up what we “should” do.

“I think it has helped people really consider who they want to be in contact with and how they want to do that. So rather than saying yes to social engagements because you feel like you should, people are now able to make much more meaningful decisions around who they make time for.”

If you’re like Sam and have noticed your mental health improve in lockdown, Jacqui has two questions for you. Firstly, what do you miss? Secondly, what have you enjoyed missing out on?

She calls this JOMO, the joy of missing out. “Maybe your JOMO is not feeling like you need to go to the gym because everybody else is. Or you don’t have to have awkward conversations by the microwave at lunch time. Whatever it is, it is about how you integrate both of these elements into regular life when we reintegrate.”

28-year-old primary school teacher Nicole is also learning what works for her during lockdown. Her job depends on her ability to interact with others, but that doesn’t mean it's always easy. Nicole’s social anxiety often leaves her overthinking situations to the point of becoming paranoid. 

“Normally I am on edge, over-thinking and paranoid throughout the day. I feel uncomfortable at work because I can’t express myself properly and feel like I am misunderstood.”

Before lockdown, Nicole started minimising social interactions at work, like being in the staffroom, to limit her stress. She also has one day mental health day off a fortnight. But after noticing how much her anxiety has diminished in lockdown, she is hoping to have two remote teaching days a week.

The lockdown has given different workforces, even education, an opportunity to see what can be achieved from working from home. While some workforces are better suited than others, the push has made people experiment with different ways of working.

Decades of research has shown that working from home can improve mental wellbeing, as well as productivity. A two-year-long Stanford University study found people who worked from home were more productive than those that did the same job in an office. The study also found those working from home saw a 50 percent decrease in attrition (leaving a job), took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and took less time off.

Companies implementing a four-day-week are reaping similar benefits. Auckland company Perpetual Guardian trialled the scheme in February 2018 and hasn’t looked back since. "Our productivity has gone up, our profits have gone up, our staff retention has improved, our stress levels have dropped," the founder told The AM Show last year. 

Jacqui, who specialises in workplace wellbeing, predicts many workforces will “reshape” how they work going forward. But what it will come down to is organisations having leaders that are flexible and open to adaptation. “If this period of time has been very difficult and you have a leader that is set in stone or historic then it will revert back to normal. So it really depends on the business and the leadership team.”

The lockdown has shown us, more than ever, how critical social interaction is for our mental health. But as Jacqui points out, it has also given us a chance to think about how we like to give and receive these connections. 

“How you get that connection can be different for us all. I don’t think there is a prescriptive way that people should be acting. The individual has to choose how much they need of what to feel happy and satisfied. I don't think it is for the rest of society to judge how they are getting that connection.”

Sam and Nicole are both dreading the end of lockdown and the stress going back to normal will bring. But if anything good comes from this crisis, it should be our ability to critique what ‘normal’ was. With New Zealand’s high suicide rate, there is an argument that ‘normal’ wasn’t working. 

Lockdown has given many people a time to put their mental health first, and we need to learn everything we can from such a rare opportunity. So whether it’s learning you have a preference for socialising through a screen, or that you need a regular work-from-home-day each week, we need to strive to integrate these aspects into our new normal. And as a community, we need to adapt to support each other.