Remember FOMO? The fear of missing out? Ah, those were the days. Now, in the (soon-to-be) post-pandemic era, you’re probably experiencing the opposite: FOGO—ya know, the fear of going out. You might’ve even heard a different, more clinical term for it. Cave syndrome. Melba Newsome explains the rise of cave syndrome in Scientific American: “After a year in isolation, many people who have developed an intimate understanding of what it means to socially isolate are afraid to return to their former lives despite being fully vaccinated.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As resilient as we are—you only have to look at the loaves of sourdough and racks of tie-dye to prove it—our brains have been deeply affected by the past year. If you’ve been stuck inside and social distancing, adjusting to back to “normalcy” probably feels really strange. And of course, there’s the impact on our kids. So how much will this cave syndrome play out in terms of anxiety? We turned to trauma and resiliency expert Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., PhD, to learn just what types of anxieties he thinks will be popping up as we emerge from our caves—and what to do when we spot them.
1. Situationally Induced Agoraphobia
What is it: Feeling highly anxious in crowds—at a concert, protest, movie theater—even after being fully vaccinated.
Why we’ll see more of it: During the pandemic we were constantly reminded to maintain social distance—and a lot of us got really good at this. “It wired our brain to perceive being close to groups of people as a sign of danger,” says Dr. Flanagan.
What to do if you’re experiencing it: Says Dr. Flanagan: “Practice mindfulness techniques like doing breathing meditation for three minutes before entering a crowd and taking mindful breaths if you begin to feel anxious in a crowd.”
2. Isolation-Induced Separation Anxiety Disorder
What is it: The fear of being apart from those we have isolated with.
Why we’ll see more of it: Our brains became wired to perceive your child/loved ones/roommates being present nearly 24/7 as a sign that they and you were safe. So if you go back to the office after working from home with your 6-year-old all year, “you might find yourself preoccupied with anxiety over your child’s safety and well-being,” explains Dr. Flanagan.
What to do if you’re experiencing it: Build up your pragmatic optimism—aka the belief that things will get better—and gratitude muscles: “At the end of the day or over your evening meal, take turns sharing five things that went well during the day. Sharing what went well will tamp down the anxiety and rewire the brain to ‘picture’ your loved one thriving in your absence,” guides Dr. Flanagan.
3. Heightened Social Anxiety Disorder (Especially at School)
What is it: Anxiety in social situations, particularly school. For example, your high school student re-enters the school building full-time for the first time since the pandemic and becomes highly anxious.
Why we’ll see more of it: For students in high-pressure social situations (like school), it’s no surprise heading back to class might be a trigger, especially with new changes. “Remember,” says Dr. Flanagan, “We often make the mistake of saying students are ‘going back to school’ or ‘returning to school.’ This is a mistake. The old school is gone. In its place is a new school experience—social distancing, hand sanitizing, in some cases masks.” By setting the expectation that students (or anyone) are “going back,” it sets them up for a shock to the amygdala which creates a surge of anxiety and fear.
What to do if you’re experiencing it: Guide your kids in visualizing themselves in a new, different environment than they left before March 2020. Help them anticipate the strangeness and awkwardness of being with others after so long. It might even be smart to head to the place (i.e. the school) before the start date. Having your child physically go inside before the “big day” could help lessen the shock of returning to a place that might feel uncanny when they re-enter.