How’s your social life looking? Has the recent lifting of rules got you packing your calendar with group meet-ups, mini-breaks and plenty of non-masky activities? There’s no doubt that the lessening of restrictions a few months ago was much welcomed in Singapore, but if the heady days of initial freedom and filling up on missed-out fun now feels done and (whisper it) a little bit tiresome, you’re not alone. After two years of waiting to go out again, why do so many of us just want to stay in?
It could be down to peaking too soon. It might be due to having no new clothes to wear. It’s more likely to be as a result of Cave Syndrome, a non-medical term coined to describe the fear and anxiety that many of us are experiencing about re-joining society as Covid restrictions ease. “Cave Syndrome gets its name from the desire to stay secluded in our safe spaces, instead of venturing out,” explains Kristi Mackintosh, a psychotherapist at Promises Healthcare (promises.com.sg). “It can range from simply being uncomfortable about socialising to absolute fear, and while some hesitancy is to be expected, this fear may start to jeopardise our lives and careers if not monitored and managed appropriately.”
A certain comfort
While it may sound extreme, given the bizarre circumstances of the past few years, apprehension over rejoining society is completely normal. “In part, this is because generally, humans are creatures of habit. We grow accustomed to certain people, places and ways of being, and prefer to stay in the sanctuary of our bubbles,” explains Kristi. “It’s an evolutionary holdover from our prehistoric days when we lived in caves – a protective mechanism which keeps us feeling secure.”
After two years of being in our caves and protecting ourselves, we’ve adjusted to a new baseline. Research suggests that all the changes we made to our daily routines due to the pandemic such as quarantining, avoiding crowds, only dressing from the waist-up and staring listlessly out of windows, have been transformed into long-term behavioural patterns. According to statistics, 49% of adults* admitted to being uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions.
Another issue is that many of us enjoyed certain aspects of the pandemic – there was respite from office politics and crushing commutes; a hiatus from society and the endless judgement on everything from outfits to hairstyles; a pause on having to make big decisions as we managed day-to-day living; and greater control over our daily routines thanks to WFH. “Behaviour that is not natural for humans – like isolation, social distancing, and masking – had to be learned and practiced over an extended period of time,” continues Kristi. “As a result, a certain comfort developed.” It’s no wonder we feel a bit weird now.
According to Kristi, there are certain groups of people who are likely to find the readjustment back to ‘normal life’ more difficult, such as those who were naturally introverted before the pandemic, those who had social anxiety, and those who are in the ‘ageing parent’ bracket and have just got used to staying in. “For this age group, they are often less tech-savvy, and may not have the resources to connect with friends and family once more,” explains Kristi. “Re-entering life will have hit this sector harder and can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and perhaps depression, making it tricky for them to re-engage again.”
Whether it’s you or someone you know who you think might be struggling, the emotional and psychological signs of Cave Syndrome will show up differently for everyone. Says Kristi, “Some may experience anxiety when engaging in activities outside of their home, while in more severe cases people may be unable to leave their home – if this is the case, please speak to your GP, a counsellor or psychologist.”
The emotional toll can manifest in a number of symptoms too, ranging from nightmares to somatic symptoms like headaches, stomach problems, body pains and insomnia.
So, as the good times return, whether it be in the shape of a big blow-out party, a small brunch with friends, or Brix and a party bus, it’s important to consider your re-entry into the world more as a dial, not as a switch. Be mindful of your feelings, and know that you don’t need to go from 0 –100 straight away.
“Cave Syndrome is an evolutionary holdover from our prehistoric days – it’s a protective mechanism which keeps us feeling safe”
According to Kristi, it can be helpful to implement some practical strategies to help you to feel supported as you go:
- PRIORITISE: Make time for your health, prioritising things that you can control, like sleep, diet and exercise. Where possible, try to decrease more negative coping strategies like over-drinking, over-eating or smoking
- RELAX: Practice stress-reducing, relaxing activities such as yoga, mindfulness or grounding techniques. Find something that works for you, start slowly and make it a regular habit
- BREAK: Take a break from 24/7 news and social media
- CONNECT: Stay connected with those whose company you enjoy, and who share the same values and interests
- DON”T COMPARE OR COMPETE: Don’t pressure yourself to keep up with anyone else. The pandemic has caused many people to realise that they enjoy a more introverted or ‘smaller’ life and that is okay
- START SMALL: Go for a walk with a friend (SG’s therapy gardens are a good place to start!) and slowly introduce more challenging situations into your days as you feel more confident
- POSITIVE SELF-TALK: Celebrate all of your successes, no matter the size
- ACTS OF KINDNESS: Acts of service for others allow us to step out of our usual, often self-involved lives. It develops our compassion for others, in turn having a positive effect on our own happiness. Check out some of the brilliant initiatives that take place within the community by ANZA Action (anza.org.sg/groups/anza-action/)
- CHECK IN WITH OTHERS: Although there may be a physical distance, reach out through phone calls or video chat to friends and family you might feel worried about. Say something like: “I notice you’re not going out much recently. Is everything okay?” or strategically invite them to join you in an activity you used to enjoy doing together. If they don’t appear to be adjusting over time, encourage them to speak to their GP, a counsellor or psychologist
- JUST DO IT: Humans are inherently social beings, which means living in isolation for prolonged periods can be quite an ordeal which is why we shouldn’t let ourselves delay re-entry out of fear. Research strongly suggests that most people will bounce back eventually, and some will even grow as human beings – a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth – which sounds like it could be rather lovely, doesn’t it?
*Statistics by the American Psychological Association