Here we are in the liminal space between the start and the end of COVID-19. The pandemic is far from over, but some parts of the world have started to make the move to “open up” again after some 15 months of social distancing measures. While this shift will be welcomed by some, the idea of reentering the connected world — with all its social complexities and potential perils — fills others with dread.
A few different reports and surveys have shown that a surprisingly high proportion of people have what some experts have dubbed as “cave syndrome,” a non-medical term used to describe an apprehension or fear of going out into the world after over a year of social distancing.
One recent report by the American Psychological Association published in March 2021 found that 49 percent of surveyed people reported feeling uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends (whatever "ends" means). This sentiment was especially strong among Black and Hispanic people. Furthermore, 46 percent of people said they don’t feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic.
Professor Steven Taylor, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, wrote a paper in May 2020 predicting the rise of anxiety in the aftermath of COVID-19. He speculated that the pandemic will see a rise of hikikomori, an agoraphobia-like phenomenon (derived from the Japanese words hiki “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”) where people scarcely leave their house and practice extreme social isolation.
“COVID-19 is likely to increase the prevalence of hikikomori, as health-anxious people retreat from a coronavirus contaminated outside world into the safety of their apartments or homes,” he writes in the paper.
“Advances in technology have made it increasingly easier for people to withdraw into their homes. There are trends—even before COVID-19—for people to increasingly work from home, to watch movies at home instead of going to the cinema, to shop online instead of going to stores, and to use home delivery food services instead of going to restaurants.”
Professor Taylor also explains how the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak saw a massive rise on people suffering from symptoms of PTSD, with a four-year follow-up study of 70 survivors of SARS finding that 44 percent developed PTSD. Considering how many people have been ill or lost loved ones to COVID-19, he's bracing for a similar trend in the coming few years.
But the fear is most likely not necessarily born out of health concerns; the pandemic also appears to have deepened pre-existing anxiety-related disorders that could lead to agoraphobia-like behavior.
A number of studies have also pointed out how many peoples’ mental health took a plunge during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. One study found more than 27 percent of participants reported a level of mental distress that’s considered clinically significant in late April 2020, compared with less than 19 percent of people before the pandemic took hold. Not only were many worried by the disease itself, this period also saw rising job insecurity, widening socioeconomic disparity, and decreased access to healthcare, all of which took their toll on peoples’ mental health.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has left you feeling anxious, burnt out, or fearful, you're not alone. There are a few simple things you can do to help cope with the stress: taking care of your body is a good place to start, such as eating healthily, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep. Meditating, hobbies, taking time to unwind, and connecting with others can help. It's also advisable to take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories.
As ever, reach out if you need support. If you are struggling to cope, there are many free and confidential services you can use. Visit the CDC website for more information.