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Emerging from the Dark



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The 17-year cicadas that emerged this spring after their long hibernation got me thinking. While, happily, I don’t see myself as a spindly ravenous insect, I can identify with the process of emerging from a dark space and quiescent time into the bright sunlight with the promise of more things to do. I think all of us are looking forward to leaving our relative isolation and hanging out with more of our fellow humans, eating out and hitting the road to see cherished people and new sights. But you may not consciously be processing what a significant transition we have entered. Even though we are moving into what we all believe will be better times, transitions by their very nature evoke mixed feelings.

So even as we celebrate this change we may nonetheless have some anxieties and worries. What we may bring into the sunlight as we emerge is not just our optimism and our excitement but also the little grubs and clumps of dirt that arose during darker moments over these past many months.

Indeed, they are hard to shake.

And they don’t just fall by the wayside as we move forward.

And that’s OK.

No need to panic if you, your partner and/or your children are feeling some unease, some outright anxiety and even, according to some published reports, some nostalgia and angst at the ending of your small pandemic pod.

My daughter Tori shared with me recently that she feels a bit anxious about bigger social gatherings, even though both she and most everyone she knows are fully vaccinated. “I just feel a little socially anxious — and you know that’s so unlike me. Why am I feeling this way? When will it go away? I don’t like it!”

I have heard so many others say the same, and it’s not an introvert/extrovert thing. Articles are appearing in the news and social media that speak about both children and adults reporting higher levels of social anxiety, including among those who rarely experienced this in pre-pandemic times.

I started to tell Tori that her response is normal — but I caught myself. Nothing is “normal” right now.

So I started again. “Honey, it makes sense,” I replied. “We’ve all been in a weird, unexpected and unsought hibernation of sorts.”

Tori nodded emphatically. “Yes that’s true, but I still don’t understand how I feel. I want to see all my friends and go to parties. I’m looking forward to in-person study groups and club meetings at school. I’ve been missing socializing for months.”

“I know, but no matter how social you were before the pandemic, some part of you knows that restarting a wider social life also means navigating all the complex nuances inherent in social interactions. It’s reasonable to find that a bit daunting.”

“Hmmph — OK, yes, that makes sense.”

“And of course it’s possible your social skills are a bit rusty even — but like any well-learned skill, you will be surprised at how quickly it will mostly feel fine in social interactions.”

“Only ‘mostly’?” asked Tori, a frown in full evidence. “What is the other part?”

(These pesky children — asking us to account for our every word.)

“The other part is that sometimes it will feel a bit awkward. We are all a bit ‘rusty’ socially. You might feel like it’s more work to socialize than it was pre-pandemic. So you might get tired being social more quickly than usual. You might find you have less tolerance for chit-chatty conversations than you used to. And you might feel a bit of the mirror effect — self-conscious and concerned about how others view you.”

“Ugh. None of that sounds much fun.”

I wrinkled my nose in sympathy.

“Yes, true but again, it makes sense, right? Why should all our social interactions just fall into their old comfortable rhythm as if there was no break? Let alone a long, life-altering, world-changing break?”

Silence then. “Yeah, I see what you mean. OK — so if I feel anxious it’s OK and then what?”

“Notice it, name it and then just let it be — don’t hyper-focus on it. Don’t make it more than it is. And be self-compassionate — nothing has been ‘easy’ for a long while. And extend your compassion to others, because many people will be feeling this way too.”

It’s also important to manage our and our children’s expectations. Normalizing that some anxiety, worry, unease, discomfort, awkwardness are normal to experience in an abnormal situation. Start discussing as a family, if you haven’t already, that it’s OK to feel a little out of sync with things, uneasy or anxious. Make it clear it’s fine to have lower energy for socializing or some reluctance gearing up for a busy round of activities. We are not rockets to be launched in a straight line going from zero to a zillion mph. It’s OK to start slow, to ease into more social and other activities — however that looks for you, your child and your family.

I also told Tori — and would suggest as a general thought — not to avoid social activities because of feeling some anxiety. That serves no purpose except to strengthen it. In most cases, it will fade in time and with more practice being social in greater numbers again.

If the anxiety interferes with you or your child’s daily functioning and persists even with greater support from loved ones, don’t hesitate to seek out a therapist. Learning some skills to manage anxiety such as mindfulness, deep breathing and distraction can be helpful as can practicing social skills like how to manage awkward silences, enter a new social group and manage cliques at school or in their summer camp or friend group as they expand to their once full size.

Try following your child’s lead. Pay attention to how they are acting, to the emergence of behaviors that suggest anxiety (depending on their age, such things as bedwetting, more tantrums, increased video-gaming, avoidance of social activities they used to love, ruptures with friends they used to be close to). And be extra patient — a potentially hard task when we many of us feel a bit impatient and restless generally these days. Last, talk about these issues and situations explicitly with your child. Interestingly, acknowledging if you also have some anxiety can be helpful too. That’s how my conversation with Tori ended.

“And you know, Tori, I’ve been feeling a little socially anxious too at times. I just notice it, name it, and move on.”

“Really? Thanks — that makes me feel better that it’s not just me.

 

Katharine (Kate) Staley, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist. She recently started River Rocks Consulting, a new business offering consulting and wellness/parent coaching services.

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