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Raffela Mancuso, who suffers from anxiety, found a year of hibernation in her apartment to be soothing.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

By the fall, if not sooner, small talk is going to make a comeback. Crowds and close talkers – their return is inevitable. The days of easily dodging pleasantries with Neighbour What’s-his-Name are ticking down, and “because of COVID” will eventually expire as an unassailable excuse to cop out. No more squirrelling away in pyjamas with impunity.

Are we ready to get back out there?

And if not, how can we get ready?

“I am very nervous about it,” says Raffela Mancuso, a 24-year-old university student in Edmonton who struggles with generalized anxiety. A year of hibernation in her apartment, having her own room to breathe, was soothing in many ways. Maybe too soothing. She recently cancelled brunch with a good friend who she’d been missing. Not because of COVID-19, but because of the stress of socializing.

“Do I want to go out and have nothing to talk about and pretend that my life is interesting?” she says.

She has always felt exhausted about being out in public or socializing, she says. Now the thought of walking through a crowded hallway at school makes her feel even more overwhelmed. “I am just so out of practice. This might be harder than I thought.”

Ms. Mancuso isn’t the only one bracing herself for the Great Reopening – on social media, a stream of people are stressing out about it, even as they wish desperately for the pandemic to be over. After more than a year, even the most outgoing among us might feel a little rusty navigating people-populated spaces.

Mark Jordon, a 51-year-old in Toronto, is not, by nature, an introvert, but he describes a sense of “trepidation” about the social landscape returning. “We are re-emerging into a world we will almost have to rediscover,” he says. Last November, he started a new job as managing director with Tiptap, a start-up that provides contactless payment systems for charities. After months in Zoom meetings, he met his boss, the CEO, for the first time in mid-March. It felt weird. “It was like I had been watching a Netflix show,” he says, “and suddenly I am on set.”

That’s not a bad analogy: A world lived through screens, especially for office workers and students, will soon upgrade to 3-D again. Some people with anxiety may have fared better during the socially dormant days of the pandemic. But experts point out that many have also missed important steps in treatment such as exposure therapy, an approach that involves slowly “exposing” clients to anxiety-inducing settings, such as crowds, sometimes with a therapist accompanying them. (Some patients have been managing this by taking their therapists along in earbuds when they visit the grocery store or run errands.)

Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders, affecting as many as 13 per cent of Canadians over their lifetimes. It is typically characterized by an intense fear of being judged by others in public. “It can dominate people’s life, and define them,” says Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University. It is often diagnosed in teenagers, who may now have been even more self-isolated during an important stage of development, and will need extra support to return to full-time in-person school.

For those with a clinical diagnosis – and for many others whose anxiety has increased over the last year – leaping back into the social and work scene can be a shock to their mental health, says Dr. McGrath. “Small changes are much better than rushing back into the full exposure of what you fear.”

A slow and steady vaccine rollout will help; the pandemic is not expected to end one day with a COVID-19 ceasefire. Rather, the world will slowly wake up again.

Meanwhile, in preparation, those feeling anxious can practise, suggests Marlene Taube-Schiff, the director of Forward Thinking Psychological Services, and a member of Anxiety Canada’s scientific advisory committee. Initiate activities within the pandemic guidelines, such as chatting with a neighbour, or taking more walks with friends. If you have only been texting, start making phone calls, or book a Zoom meeting with only one work colleague. “You don’t have to enjoy it, you just have to see that you can handle it,” says Dr. Taube-Schiff. Anxiety is a normal response to a stressful time, but people feeling overwhelmed should reach out for help. “The more we avoid things,” says Dr. Taube-Schiff, “the harder they are to engage in, and the pandemic has allowed us to avoid things for a whole year.”

Dr. Taube-Schiff includes herself as someone who needs a few doses of exposure therapy. She has an underlying medical condition that puts her at higher risk of complications if she gets COVID-19, so she’s been nervous around crowds during the pandemic. Lately, she’s been forcing herself to walk on busier streets to build up her risk tolerance.

Contemplating the causes behind anxiety can also spark useful introspection, suggests Dr. Taube-Schiff: “What do I want my life to look like, and what is important to me?”

Ms. Mancuso knows she will have to accept those brunch invitations, sooner than later. After all, she wants to see her friends. But perhaps, she suggests, the pandemic perspective will also lead to more understanding for those with mental illness, and more investment in their care. “Remember that anxiety you felt during the pandemic? Imagine that, but all the time,” she says. As the world opens up, “I‘m really hoping that people can be more sympathetic.”

If you’re in need of professional counselling, resources include Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, text 686868, or visit kidshelpphone.ca, or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, crisisservicescanada.ca. Wellness Together Canada, a virtual resource funded by the Government of Canada, also provides free access to counsellors and online resources.

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