As the number of people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine increases, Tami Hackbarth knows the calls will start coming in: invitations from friends who want to meet for dinner, go to the movies or see live concerts.
But to Hackbarth, after months of limiting her social interaction, the idea of that increased interaction causes anxiety.
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"There's an expectation that we're going to do things inside again,” says Hackbarth, 51, of Sacramento, California. “I break into a sweat thinking about it.”
Though medical officials now say it's OK to gather in small groups with those who have been vaccinated, and many will feel more confident dining out or reconnecting with family and friends, more than a year of quarantine and social distancing has taken its toll. Spending time in social situations may not be as simple as penciling a date into the calendar.
Stepping back out into the social whirl may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable — even if it's something that once felt natural.
"COVID has really disrupted the way that we interact with others … and there's a strain on social networks [and] relationships,” says Matthew Lee Smith, codirector of the Center for Population Health and Aging at Texas A&M University. “When we get to a situation where [things] are starting to open … the anxiety kicks in … and the question becomes: Is the risk [of going out socially] worth the benefit?"
Embrace the awkwardness
During the height of the pandemic, many people experienced more isolation and loneliness than ever before. Social circles contracted, and daily conversations — with friends, acquaintances and strangers — were often limited. A study by AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation, for example, noted that almost 3 in 10 women had no social interaction with those outside their household or workplace for up to three months.
As people reconnect, conversations might be stilted. People might forget to make eye contact or feel anxious about being around a group of vaccinated people despite assurances that it poses a low risk of COVID-19 exposure.