Returning to a retail job and feelings of social vulnerability after the UK pandemic lockdown – interview from England

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), Gerald Brazell, Flickr

A young woman living on the south coast of England shared some experiences of returning to working in a bookshop on April 12, 2021, as part of the phased re-opening of the country from a partial lockdown. She talks about difficulties with anxiety, depression, home life and early experiences.

Returning to work after 4 months in lock-down came as a shock. Everyone who had been shut away must have felt it, but when teamed with social anxiety and depression, it had an additional edge. However, perhaps surprisingly, the readjustment period was relatively quick. After only a couple of 9-5 days in the shop, it felt like I’d never been away, but not necessarily in a good way; not in the welcome-return-to-old-company sort of way. The joys of being back in public for me were weak at best, and the familiarity was that of an ache so persistent you come to forget its impact after a while. Its absence is alien. It becomes a painful part of you.

At first, it felt overwhelming to be faced with people again, and to have no choice but to deal with queries and issues as they arose, to look people in the eye, to attempt to effectively communicate, get the right tone and intonation, right expression, all through the barrier of a mask. Lock-down had acted as a cocoon, creating a situation in which you didn’t have to socialise or communicate, and you didn’t have to feel guilty or weird about not doing so. Suddenly, I had to be in public again, with no escape. No more enforced solitude. It was back to the reality of life with anxiety, and the tensions associated with this environment rapidly returned.

I had forgotten what it felt like to be talked down to. While tucked away inside, strangers really hadn’t had the opportunity to make me feel worthless for my position of status, and without even realising it, my self worth had risen through not being subjected to what is run-of-the-mill in customer service. It is considered part of the job to have customers angry about the benign, to be aggressive when you don’t have what they want, to treat you with casual contempt, to bark at you and demand things from you, a general rudeness that insidiously seeps into your everyday.

Social judgement was another sensation that had faded into obscurity over lockdown. How you presented yourself, what clothes you wore and how much they were worth, your posture and gait, your accent and your delivery, your vocabulary and projection. It had been so long since these elements came into play that, for a while, I forgot that mine were not ‘right’, and that peoples’ response to your mere existence could dehumanise so subtly yet so completely.

To be socially dismissed on sight was something I had come to forget the sensation of, and there was a strange resignation towards returning to such a dynamic. In this world, there are those who have the position and the authority to diminish others who exist on a different plain. They are the apex predators, and society offers no way of escaping this social hierarchy and no way of protecting yourself when you are the gazelle, your worth extending only as far as how you can serve them.

Of course, for the most part, people don’t intentionally set out to implicitly degrade or devalue, and for a lot of people these micro-expressions and aggressions are water off a ducks back. It is only when you read every movement of the brow, aversion of eyes, tightness of voice – a hypersensitivity that comes with anxiety – that they begin to choke a fragile sense of self like ivy on an oak. Society is not designed for us, people who drive through a storm with the windows open, no protective barrier between ourselves and the battering elements. We have no choice but to subdue the persistent onslaught that is everyday life with medication, both prescribed and self-prescribed. But this is no cause for complaint; as we are reminded everyday… that’s life.

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I’ve found that looking after things other than yourself, be it plants or animals, can make it much easier to experience feelings of love, compassion and caring, which can so often get lost when focusing solely on yourself, when you don’t necessarily want to treat yourself with love. Self-care is something I’ve struggled with, often even feeling selfish to take time to look after myself mentally or physically. Plants and pets are dependent on you for their survival, to grow and thrive, and it is rewarding not only making other living things happy, but as they give a lot back.

Plants cheer up the environment, making it feel full of life when it might otherwise feel bleak or stale, but they also improve air quality (especially peace lilies, which remove toxins from the air). A lot of plants don’t need much tending to be happy, so they can be a great place to start if wanting to cultivate that ability to care for something outside of yourself. Also, seeing a beautiful plant wilt if you leave it without water for too long, and perk up once watered, is a great reminder of how little can really improve life in a major way. Gardening is great for mindfulness, being calming and grounding, but for those who don’t have an outside space like me, house plants are a perfect way to still connect with nature every now and then.

Animals rely on you to deal with all their needs, from feeding to grooming to walking, and they are the one thing that will push me to go outside or get up in the mornings when anxiety is really hitting, because their quality of life depends on me. Not only are they motivating to do the things I sometimes dread, but they offer a great deal of support. They are sensitive to your moods and will comfort you when you are low. They also cause me a lot of joy and are constantly making me smile; without the dogs, exercise, laughter, nurturing, and physical closeness would all be very difficult to make myself do.

I have always loved nature and animals. Somehow, they seem more significant than a lot of the things in this world. Animals are uncomplicated, and nature just gets on with it. They are the perfect reminded of what actually matters in life, when it’s flooded with anxiety and fear.

Arts and crafts have always been a good way to centre and soothe myself when I’m stressed. Crafts like knitting have actually been proven to reduce stress. The repetition and focus on the tactile activity at hand is perfect for people who have anxiety or are restless and need to find something to focus on. I also find it hard to just watch TV and relax, so having something to ‘do’ helps me to feel like I’m doing something productive.

Live music is one of the few events where I don’t experience high levels of anxiety in a public space, which is ironic considering it’s crowded and noisy which are two elements I typically avoid. It’s the fact that when you’re in the audience, no one is looking at you, and you’re not expected to talk or socialise; it’s all about watching the band and a shared appreciation of their music. The noise and immersion has actually become something I love, as it takes me out of my own mind for a couple of hours, and acts as a release from all the pent-up fear and stress.

Sometimes people will try and engage or get you to dance, but the mood always seems to be good humoured. It’s not something I would have considered as being good for those with social anxiety, but it has been a great help for me, and could be a good step towards facing intense situations without the expectation put on you to talk or perform.

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I suffered from Selective Mutism, so I was talkative around a very small family unit or close friends, but completely mute in any situation that was unfamiliar or threatening. I was then homeschooled between the ages of 11-16, so it’s difficult to say how much character developed over this time.

I do experience some of the effects of Selective Mutism. It is known as a children’s disorder, as people supposedly ‘grow out of it’. I think people just learn to adapt with it and ‘present’ as normal. Often, if I feel like I can’t make my voice heard, I will feel my throat tighten and I was emotionally shut down and zone out.

I would describe selective mutism as a physical manifestation of your anxious thoughts. The tension causes your throat to constrict to the point where you feel like you physically can’t speak. It’s debilitating, and completely shapes the way you experience the world, much like looking in through glass. People learn to tune you out and you become virtually invisible. Homeschooling was a last resort. I wouldn’t say it was hugely positive, but I don’t know where the alternative would have lead me.

AA, 2021

Social anxiety news and stories round-up

Blogs

An artist studying art therapy gives an account of her life and experiences of bullying, judgement of her physical appearance and of subsequent social anxiety: “The pain and loneliness I felt from my social isolation was beyond imagining, so I drew to feel less alone. I am no stranger to heartbreak, betrayal and disappointment, and rather then let the pain defeat me I used it to create something beautiful. Heartbreak actually inspired most of my artworks. I use my emotional pain as a major source of inspiration in most of my works. I like to focus on the themes of life and death, nature because it brings life to my heart, and death which represents the suffering.”

A series of clearly written suggestions for using our senses to de-stress, highlighting sound, smell, feel and touch: “Figure out what sounds bring you a sense of peace or help relax you and begin using them to your advantage. The most commonly suggested method for this would be through listening to music, as this can have a positive psychological impact and has been shown to help ease low moods. Whether you are a fan of upbeat pop or more melancholy ballads, music can help us explore our emotions and ease our stress very effectively.”

A succinct post, describing emotions, particularly, feelings of helplessness: “Went for a walk with Sherri yesterday…and came back just full of social anxiety…I just have such a proliferation of thoughts after social encounters, even with people I trust. Why is it so hard to be straight forward? I’m so fed up with myself…”

The writer presents succinct descriptions of childhood friendships, which provide an insightful perspective into character and bonds: “From my infant friend Lincoln, I learnt in humans that I like those who complement my personality, but that’s not to say I atall dislike people similar to me. In fact a certain threshold of shared ethics is necessary. If you ask me when I juxtapose all of these friendships, I see very little in common. Maybe that’s the point. I build myself strong allies of a diverse settings.”

Research

This is a 1990 publication which suggests that social anxiety or phobia has a high incidence amongst the Saudi population and compares it to “the West” where “agoraphobia is the most common phobic disorder and constitutes about 60% of all clinically diagnosed phobic conditions, while social phobia is relatively rare.” The article goes on to suggest some possible reasons for this, including sociocultural.

I have included this article in this list particularly for the following quote: “Social anxiety seems to arise in people who are unduly sensitive to disapproval and criticism and who have inflexible ideas about social conventions which cause them to expect criticism unnecessarily.” This is attributed to a 1974 journal article which I could not find online: Nichols KA. Severe social anxiety. Br J Med Psychol. 1974; 47:301-6.

This quotation suggests an objective judgement of social fear based on an unspecified general standard, without reference to individual history, vulnerabilities or capacities. This objective standard may be helpful for identification of the need for treatment or support, but as a definition of social anxiety, it denies the subjective experience and condition of the person with symptoms and thus denies a holistic treatment approach. The definition also denies the reality of social power differences and social harms, beyond disapproval and criticism. I believe that this narrowly focused understanding of social anxiety disorder is found in modern medical understanding and treatments.

“Social anxiety is a highly prevalent and impairing condition. Understanding prodromal features of social anxiety in infancy can facilitate early intervention and mitigate negative long-term impacts. The present study is the first to examine social anxiety risk markers across multiple indices in infants with fragile X syndrome (FXS), who are at elevated risk for comorbid social anxiety disorder. Evidence suggests that infants with FXS display both behavioral and physiological markers of social anxiety that are detectable as early as 12 months of age. However, these findings were nuanced and not consistent across all measures, highlighting the importance of a multi-method biobehavioral approach.”

Articles

Australian freelance writer, Marnie Vinall, describes the positive experience of joining and integrating into a supportive Aussie rules football team: “I managed to make it a whole three weeks in before needing to sit out a training session because my anxiety got the better of me. It was in a regular drill called “chaos”, which involves a series of balls going in any and every direction. The purpose to practise kicking, marking, calling for the ball and making yourself open and available. “The aim,” the coach said, “is to get your hands on the ball as many times as possible.”

“For some, it will be hard to quiet the ‘threat brain’ and as a result, we may actually see a rise in OCD type symptoms. It’s important to understand that with OCD it is actually anxiety and fear at the root of the problem, it’s just the OCD are the symptoms we see.”

Another article looking at the fears that reopening of countries may bring, with particular attention on those most vulnerable, such as people with anxiety disorders: “Experts say it’s important to acknowledge your stress during this transition. It’s normal to feel nervous. People shouldn’t judge themselves too harshly for their anxieties.”

A deeper look at foods beneficial to emotional and physical health: “Serotonin has a calming effect and also promotes sleep and relaxation, McKittrick explained. In fact, low levels of brain serotonin, research has suggested, can lead to increased vulnerability to psychosocial stress.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain. Complex carbs including whole grains and vegetables can help boost levels of serotonin because they make tryptophan more available in the brain.”

Very frank and insighful account of a woman fearing social interactions after the lifting of pandemic restrictions in the UK: “Fortunately, I found a career where I could escape those feelings for a couple of hours. As a nanny, social anxiety dissipated as the focus was on the children and I was able to forget about me. I worked long hours and did something so fulfilling, that I realised when it came to caring for others – such as the children I worked with, or taking my husband to hospital – the feeling of being needed, the purpose of doing something for others, overtook the dread and fear.”

Prior to the lockdown in the UK, she had started a new job role: “I don’t currently know if I will be able to go back to it – the most I can achieve is going to a chemist to collect my husband’s medication once a month and that is a mammoth task that takes a lot of psychological build-up.”

The Coronavirus Lockdown – Opportunity & Anxiety

Akashi Seijuro_AnnaVanes
Akashi Seijuro by Anna Vanes (c)

As many are noting, including the blogger, Laury Jenneret, who writes with thoughtfulness about the experience in Britain, there have been some positive, potentially, transformational, aspects to the partial societal and economic lockdown in the UK. For those fortunate to have basic needs met, from food to health care – and to not be stuck with an abuser – and with Internet access available, the pause in lives and unfolding of tragedy has also enabled personal reflection and, often with the help of technology, re-connection with people and communities. Laury Jenneret writes, “…I have had so many more conversations, both with friends and people I don’t actually know, that it has made me wonder if social distancing wasn’t what we were all doing before the coronavirus.”

Many individuals, such as those experiencing social anxiety symptoms, may feel excluded from this silver lining in the tragedy – personal renewal and deeper connection – with their greater isolation potentially reinforcing damaging behaviours, as psychologist, Karin Klassen, warns: “Interacting with other people is one of the things that makes us get dressed in the morning, put our face on . . . Without that interaction we might stop doing some of those things that are basic self-respect things. Then because our behaviour changes we start to feel in a way that supports that negative behaviour. We start to feel icky.”

Technology is being put to meaningful use by some at this time, historian, Robin Reich, writes on her blog, expressing hope that the will for communication persists beyond lockdowns. Writer, Catherine Hume, cites the example of Chinese residents who used their lockdown to develop foreign language and other skills, to recommend individuals struggling in their workplaces to investigate online courses to “retrain into a job you can turn into a business. Be self employed. Be a success and be a success without any hassle from co workers.”

Remote interaction does not, however, enable the physical contact, movement and full range of social cues that can make real interaction so fulfilling. Whilst practically beneficial, therapists have expressed concern about some of the challenges that come with remote interaction with clients, including a concern about the emotional detachment it might enable.

Content on the Internet is so diverse and vast, varying in credibility and accessibility, that its sheer volume and range of options can be a challenge for individuals to navigate without a clear idea of their purpose in its use. This can equally apply to online educational and job opportunities as it can for entertainment.

The current transformational opportunity – and, perhaps, imperative – for job-seekers and job-changers is clearly evident and can place a great pressure on individuals, especially, the most marginalised, burdened and isolated. Without public pressure, it is unlikely that government and their agencies, post-coronavirus, will dramatically change their underfunded service support for disabled and/or jobless groups, despite what should be better awareness of the challenges of being housebound.

There is no general answer to how to improve, train and prepare oneself for the uncertain future – on top of caring for one’s health and dealing with the threat of the virus and its societal and economic consequences.  A psychotherapist, Annie Wright, writing especially for trauma sufferers dealing with the pandemic crisis says, in what feels like a universal truism for people currently dealing with serious health difficulties: “(b)ut for now, our only job – your only job – is to take care of yourself as best you can, to weather this storm, to live with your ghosts but to not let them overwhelm you.” For parents and carers and others, an addition must be made for dependents but self-care and attention will be a necessary starting point for all. Social and professional support may be needed by many.

Image designed by Anna Vanes (c)

To read the full blog-post, ‘Gradually, then suddenly,’ by Laury Jenneret, click the link below.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, “Two ways,” Mike said, “Gradually and then suddenly.” I’ve thought about that a lot over the past week, as I, like the rest of the world, have looked on in stunned silence as society as we knew it has ground to a halt. We first heard about COVID-19 at the end of last year, and to be honest it just rumbled in the background on our news agenda. We all broadly knew what it was, that it was a virus believed to have originated from a wet-market in Wuhan, some people had heard that it might have something to do with bats, but everyone was pretty vague on the details, because it felt abstract. It felt like it didn’t have anything to do with us. Not really.

When I took my daughter to…

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