When lockdown was announced and millions of people were sent to work from home, I couldn’t quite believe it. I’d worked from home in the past, when there were problems with the trains or my kids got sick, or when I just needed to get my head down and plough through some work. But now, here we are, the vast majority of us working remotely five days a week. People working together, but never together.
It was a novelty at first, but I understand why some people quickly started to hate it. If you get your energy from the hustle and buzz of the office, being alone at home all day must feel like being cast adrift at sea. A loss of focus, a lack of momentum. I heard so many people describing remote working almost in terms of pain. “I can’t stand it. It’s killing me. When will it stop?”. They didn’t like the New Normal and couldn’t wait to get back to regular office life.
In some ways, COVID-19 has been like a personality litmus test. It quickly showed us who needs other people around them, inside and outside of work. And who doesn’t. I’m one of those who doesn’t. For most of my professional life, I’ve struggled in secret with social anxiety. Not shyness or self-consciousness, which we all feel at one time or another. I mean social anxiety disorder (SAD), a phobia of social interaction.
More specifically, for me, it’s a phobia of blushing. In the past it led me into cycles of avoidance: I would stay away from the situations that might make me blush. Those situations, of course, always involved people. Meetings, presentations, workshops: even going out for a team lunch was something I worked hard to avoid. Because missing out was always preferable to having a nervous meltdown in public.
So when people ask me how I’ve been “surviving” lockdown or how I’m “coping” with it or if I’m “staying sane” – I really don’t know what to say. Because working from home for over a year, with minimised social contact, really has been something close to life-changing for me. On a personal and a professional level.
Dealing with social anxiety is like flexing a muscle and I can’t delude myself that I don’t need to keep on practising… Human contact, in the flesh, will always be important. Even for someone like me.
I’ve always been more productive when I work from home. Without the daily commute to worry about, I can be showered, fed and at my computer by 8am. Without all the noise and the constant interruptions of an open plan office, I find a deeper level of focus. And I get a hell of a lot more done. Before the workday is over I feel like I’ve achieved twice as much.
The biggest benefit for me has been a physical separation from people. Working remotely all day, every week, has given me a sense of control I’ve never had before. The office doesn’t dictate my day anymore. There are still meetings in calendars and Zoom calls to join and deadlines we all have to hit. In terms of work, my employers still drive my activity.
But mentally and emotionally, I’m completely free of a communal social environment. All the things that habitually frighten me, like unexpected conversations or lots of people seeing me blush, are now gone. At home, I can control all the variables and there are very few surprises.
Even the events that often trouble me most, like talking in groups or presenting to a client, have become much more manageable. I find it easier to speak to people through a computer screen. Being one step removed from them makes all the difference because, when I’m talking to lots of people online, it’s harder for them to see me blush. We’re not in the same room and I don’t feel trapped. I’m in less perceived danger and I relax more. My face, my body, my whole physical existence shrinks down to a little square in the corner of the screen. It means I think better. I present better. I feel protected and my phobia runs out of steam.
Before Coronavirus arrived, when I held a stressful role in an advertising agency, I fell into the habit of taking beta blockers. These little pills lowered my blood pressure and reduced the physical signs of anxiety, like trembling and blushing. I swallowed them every time I had an important meeting coming up. And looking back, it was a sign my environment was getting the better of me.
Now I’ve stopped taking the beta blockers altogether. There just aren’t enough occasions when I need them anymore. Because almost all of my social encounters are being handled remotely, I’m fearing them a great deal less. My anticipation and worry doesn’t get a chance to fuel its own vicious cycle anymore. I can feel my SAD diminishing.
Please don’t get me wrong, though: I know the immense damage COVID has wreaked on so many people. I can’t even contemplate all the lives lost, the families broken, the jobs destroyed, the dreams crushed, right across the world. But for the first time in living memory, we’ve been exposed to a new way of living and working. Working from home, for most, is now mandatory. But not so long ago ‘WFH’ was almost a dirty little euphemism. It meant slacking off while your boss couldn’t see you, kicking back in the middle of the day to watch some daytime TV.
Collectively, we’ve shown as a workforce that it’s not like that at all. People can be trusted to manage their own time and workload. And do it all unmonitored. A great deal of us even seem to thrive on this approach. Until now, I’d accepted my whole career would be one long fight against social anxiety. And the battlefield would always be the workplace. But in the space of one year, that whole idea has been flipped on its head.
The same goes for social situations outside of work. There are fewer of them now, and I feel my anxiety dropping notch by notch. This even applies to my own 40th birthday, which landed in the middle of lockdown. I’d planned to throw a party, the venue had been booked and all the guests had been invited. I wanted to celebrate the big 4-0 like all my other friends had, but inevitably I was worrying and fretting about it well in advance. About being the centre of attention, and how to make it through the night without turning red. When we eventually cancelled the whole thing, a cool wave of relief washed right through me.
Which is why I also need to acknowledge there’s another side to this coin. And it’s a dangerous one to ignore. The vaccines are rolling out and restrictions are easing. We’re all about to return to work and none of us really know what the New Normal will look like.
Given all I’ve said, you’d probably expect me to advocate for fully remote working. But believe it or not, I don’t think that’s the best answer. Social distancing has made life easier for me in the short term. But it could easily make life harder in the long run. Already I can feel my discomfort more keenly when I’m suddenly thrown back into direct human contact. The adrenaline flows fast, the blush comes quick.
Dealing with social anxiety is like flexing a muscle and I can’t delude myself that I don’t need to keep on practising. It took me three decades to accept SAD and find my own way forwards with it. I worry that could all be undone in record time if I sit back and relax too much. Human contact, in the flesh, will always be important. Even for someone like me.
But the key will be finding a balance. The workplace gives us lots of opportunities to collaborate, but fewer opportunities to be alone. We have to create more time and more physical space for solitude, immersion, concentration, and reflection. Because if the pandemic has highlighted anything for me, it’s how little of that has been available to me in my career.
If you enjoyed this, you can read more from Russell on Happiful, where he shares 10 of his most common SAD triggers, and his tips on how to handle them.
Redface: How I Learnt To Live With Social Anxiety by Russell Norris, published by Canbury Press, is available online and from all good bookstores (RRP £9.99).
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