Seeing friends again means the return of social anxiety

2 months ago 16

I’ve never been particularly religious.

My birth certificate will tell you that I’m Church of England, but I didn’t get much of a say in that. At three months old, I protested against my own christening by headbutting the vicar in the chin at the font.

My white lace dress was remarkable but my affinity to God was not. Despite being a very bad Christian, and a fully fledged atheist, I still look forward to Easter weekend.

Like many families in the UK, we don’t focus on the religious aspect of the holiday, we sort of make it up as we go along. Chocolate eggs, a Sunday roast and those demented yellow chicks made from pipe cleaners play a big part in our celebrations. But first and foremost, it’s about spending quality time together. 

Thanks to Covid-19, this will be the second year I have spent Easter away from my family. Last year it was all about flattening the curve and making a huge social sacrifice in unprecedented times, but this year we’re approaching Easter under very different circumstances. 

Firstly, you can pop to the shops for an Easter egg without being questioned by police over the ‘essential’ nature of the trip, and secondly, we have a vaccine programme.

The freedom to meet outdoors in a group of six is somewhat liberating, but it comes with its own social etiquette dilemmas. Organising the Last Supper in 2021 would be no picnic for Jesus, who’d have to whittle his 12 apostles down to his top five faves. For us mere mortals, it can be just as anxiety-inducing. 

This weekend will be the first time I have seen five friends in one place since October and I fear I may have forgotten how to behave. What if I buckle under the pressure of social interaction and regress back to headbutting?

I’ve been building myself up gradually with smaller meet ups in the park, but the thought of holding multiple conversations in one go is rather overwhelming. 

Luckily, I know I’m not alone. The past few weeks have involved several phone calls with friends who share my uncertainty over how we will cope when the world opens up again… again.

Humans are creatures of habit, and while many will be relieved to return to their old social conventions, some of us have found comfort in our quarantined routines.  

What if I buckle under the pressure of social interaction and regress back to headbutting?

Staying at home eliminates the holy trinity of social anxiety: the fear of missing out, the fear of actually being there, and the fear of what you did or said that creeps in after you’ve left.  

The daddy of all fears is FOMO. An omnipresent feeling that someone, somewhere is having more fun than you are and your value as a human being depends on just how Instagram-worthy your day has been. The knowledge that everyone is staying indoors and having a terrible time has been a weighted-blanket of reassurance these past 12 months. 

The son of all fears is that of having to socialise with people you don’t want to. Forcing a smile as you’re stuck in conversation with your mate’s terrible boyfriend who thinks Boris Johnson is ‘quite lol’ and Piers Morgan was a victim of cancel culture. Seeing the people you love often means spending time with the people whom they love, while trying to figure out why.

Our reliance on texts and phone calls during lockdown meant that our avenues of communication were more private and direct, but now it’s deemed safe to expose ourselves to small groups, we also expose ourselves to their partner’s opinions. 

The last in the trilogy of fears is post-social anxiety. A feeling that haunts you like a demon-spirit as you crawl into bed at night and replay every potentially embarrassing moment from your social encounters that day. The omnipotent suspicion that you mortally offended someone during conversation and are most certainly going to hell for it. 

The risk of post-social anxiety is eliminated if the only people you’ve had contact with are the characters from the comforting American sitcom you’ve binge-watched in quarantine.

While I may have enjoyed protection from all three forms of social-induced anxiety, the time has come to resurrect my social life, albeit in a limited way.   

I shan’t make a habit of comparing myself to Jesus, but I too am in my early thirties and have been curating a close circle of trusted friends over the years. Your twenties is all about filtering out the Judases and the doubting Thomases of your friendship group and keeping close the people who accept you, warts and all. 

The people who want you around even if you’re not the life and soul of the socially-distanced party. Friends who have worked to maintain a connection, despite being apart for so long under emotionally turbulent circumstances. 

I may not be spending Easter weekend with my biological family this year, but I will certainly be spending it with my spiritual one, and in-keeping with tradition, we will be making it up as we go along. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

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