If I had to classify myself on a scale from hermit to social butterfly, I’d say I’m an extroverted introvert—I can turn it on when needed, but for the most part, I prefer to be left alone and thrive on solo time spent creatively. However, the past few months of stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left me feeling both nervous about returning to a world of social events and anxious about the way I present myself online, as the latter has been my only opportunity to communicate for so long now. I’m experiencing what I can only describe as digital social anxiety, and after discussing it with a few friends (and a psychotherapist) I realize I’m not alone.
Here’s the thing—if I had some social anxiety before, my desire to succeed outweighed it. More often than not, I was able to put my best foot forward, attending events and making plans on an almost-daily basis. Working in fashion and beauty, I was often thrust into social situations that left me with no choice but to smile through small talk, make connections and not overthink the way I behaved. When the coronavirus made in-person meet-ups too risky, I (like so many others) resorted to seeing my friends and colleagues on FaceTime and Zoom, my group chats constantly blowing up and my Snapchat streaks more important than ever.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to quarantine without the opportunity for constant digital communication. Just ten or twenty years ago, social media would not have kept us informed of each other’s daily happenings during a pandemic. Although these new stay-at-home orders meant we couldn’t socialize in person, in no way did our socializing over the past few months diminish. It changed and expanded, for better or for worse. Our face-to-face human interactions were fewer, but our communication was more frequent than ever, driven by a need to post and text and Tweet to stay relevant in an out of sight, out of mind world.
Our face-to-face human interactions were fewer, but our communication was more frequent than ever.
Prior to the pandemic, I could text my friends a paragraph of emotions and not worry if they had understood; later, at drinks, I could clarify line by line, and my in-person tone would help them grasp what I had meant. If I matched with someone on Hinge, I didn’t have to spend time wondering if he was worth pursuing; we could grab a drink that week and see if we were a good match or a hard pass. When I posted on Instagram, I didn’t mind if it wasn’t the absolute best photo of me—the people who mattered could see me in real life, and they knew what I looked like.
During quarantine, however, all this changed. Suddenly, it was essential to text my friends enough that they knew I missed them, but not so much as to be overbearing. How many conversations a week constituted a close friend? A best friend? Someone who I’d only been attached to out of convenience? I started to overthink every conversation, wondering if my friends even missed me during our time apart.
As for dating apps, they became basically useless. I had no desire to have a pen pal for months on end, nor to grow attached to someone without meeting them in real life first. A random date mid-pandemic was not a risk I was willing to take. In regards to social media, I found creating content to be mostly stressful—and, believe it or not, it’s usually my favorite thing. Knowing the photos I uploaded to Instagram were the only way anyone could see me increased the pressure for them to be perfect; for me to show people I was thriving in these uncertain times.
I started to overthink every conversation, wondering if my friends even missed me during our time apart.
Fast-forward a few months longer than expected, and we are slowly coming out of our digital shells, re-entering society with socially-distanced office spaces, masked hangouts and plenty of hand sanitizer. It should be easy to snap back into socializing—I’ve been alive for 25 years, and only quarantined for five or so months—and yet I find myself more anxious than ever. According to psychotherapist Dr. Daryl Appleton, I’m not alone. “Digital anxiety is absolutely a rising trend we are seeing in today’s world,” she confirms. “Most of our communication right now is done non-verbally and there are tons of studies that support the need for humans to interact physically with one another.”
Turns out, having a happy hour Zoom with your friends or a long phone call with your cousin just isn’t the same as being together face-to-face. “This is because there are tons of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that fire when we are in close proximity to people we care about. Human touch is a super important part of our everyday life,” says Dr. Appleton. “We need hugs and kisses and handshakes and high fives, but what happens when all of that becomes dangerous? I worry people will not get what they need from physical interactions and may overcompensate and deteriorate in other ways.”
The more we overanalyze our digital communications, the harder it is to enjoy our relationships, and the harder it will be to re-enter social settings when large groups are deemed safe again. “We are forced to work with what we have right now, which is the best that we can get in a digital capacity,” says Dr. Appleton. “I applaud everyone for doing so well with this virtual world, but at the same time I am seeing a rise of ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder,’ as I like to call it—of people overthinking social interactions because they aren’t as organic.”
We need hugs and kisses and handshakes and high fives, but what happens when all of that becomes dangerous?
It might seem strange, but putting a label on it—digital social anxiety, pre-traumatic stress disorder, whichever you prefer—makes me feel a little better. Knowing I’m not the only one overthinking my texts and posts, anxious about the fate of my friendships, stressing about my latest Instagram post—it’s comforting. My anxiety stemmed from feelings of isolation, but if we’re all experiencing that same sense of loneliness, perhaps we can help one another as we establish the new rules of post-pandemic socialization. Masks on, of course.