It’s official – the COVID-19 pandemic officially changed our personalities. Truity research has discovered important shifts in the Big Five Category of Neuroticism, namely that our tendency to be anxious has steadily increased since the start of the pandemic.
And that trend toward increased anxiety doesn’t seem to be going away.
While anxiety is an often normal response to a real or perceived threat, if we continue to respond with the same level of anxiety after the threat is gone or minimized, that isn’t healthy. We might even become so attuned toward anxious thinking that we unconsciously extend that anxiety to other things in our lives, to the point where anxiety becomes part of our personality.
This can affect our relationships, rob us of joy and leave us leading smaller, less fulfilling lives.
Let’s look at a few possible reasons for the uptick in anxiety, and some suggestions we can try that may help reduce our anxiety and the ways in which it affects our lives and personalities.
How we view risk has changed
During the COVID-19 pandemic, things we used to think nothing about, like going to work, shopping for groceries and socializing in person, became risky actions that potentially could harm us or others.
Suddenly, just leaving your home was a frightening thing to do. Some people embraced staying at home for other reasons, too, because they liked working from home or just living quieter lives.
Now, we’re expected to go back to doing all the things we used to do, but those things don’t feel as normal and innocuous as they used to. But letting our comfort zone stay overly constricted isn’t good for our mental well-being.
What we can do about it:
- Continue taking reasonable precautions, whatever that looks like for you, to give yourself a sense of safety and control.
- Don’t let yourself be pressured by others’ expectations, whether it’s health choices, how you socialize, or anything else. Do what, and how much, works for you.
- Take small steps. If your comfort zone has gotten considerably smaller and you'd like to expand it again, venture out a little more at a time, doing things you enjoy, until going “out there” starts to feel less scary.
People are at odds about everything
From lockdowns to the future of the planet to the changing nature of work, not to mention social, economic and political issues, the world has become ever more polarized, and anyone with an opposing view is often labeled as wrong, uninformed, or an ‘evil enemy.’
This atmosphere adds to our anxiety because whatever we do or think, it seems that someone is going to criticize us for it, and every interaction carries the potential for strife. This is not a state of being that leads to calm and contentment.
While we can’t change others, or the issues at the heart of the conflict, we can choose how we will respond.
What we can do about it:
- Look for common ground, or just look the other way.
- Become a little deaf. Whether we just don’t respond to the judgmental glares or angry words of those around us, or we actively avoid media that spreads and exaggerates conflict, we’ll be happier and less anxious if we don’t make these sources of negativity our focus.
- Surround yourself with positive people instead of negative ones and good news instead of bad news.
The isolation of “stranger danger”
This phrase was a humorous line from a movie, but it’s funny because it’s basically true. Many of us are taught from childhood to view strangers as suspect, even dangerous. But this outlook has intensified due to the events in recent years.
A health.com article by Maggie O’Neal put it this way: "I'm calling it the stranger-danger redux," Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a stress expert, and editor of the American Institute of Stress's Contentment Magazine, tells Health. She likens the stress of coming face-to-face with another person post-COVID to that of navigating public places as a little kid.”
At the height of the pandemic, getting too physically close to someone was literally life-threatening. And while we might have been willing to take limited risks to be around our close friends and family, we started to view the risk of being around those not in our inner circle as just not worth it.
So, many of us found ourselves giving a wide berth to fellow shoppers at the supermarket and crossing the street when we saw someone walking toward us. As our comfort zone dramatically shrunk, so did the number of people we were willing to associate with.
We may have expanded this feeling beyond the physical and become distrustful of anyone we don't know. This, in turn, leaves us feeling isolated, which increases our anxiety, since one of the ways we can deal with stress is by increasing our feeling of connection with other human beings.
What we can do about it:
We can choose to change how we view and interact with strangers. Try saying hello to your neighbor when you meet at the mailboxes, talk to people in line at the grocery store and start making eye contact instead of crossing the street when you run across someone you don’t know.
If we replace anxiety with curiosity and a sense of our shared humanity, we can find joy and increased calm when we interact with others we don’t know, adding to our feeling of belonging and inclusion, which reduces stress and anxiety.
We're absorbing the anxiety around us
We’re constantly being exposed to increasing anxiety through the media – whether that’s traditional media outlets or social media – and the people around us.
In a world where everyone is feeling more anxious – and more willing to talk about it, anxiety seems to have become a part of the vague “new normal” we’ve had to adapt to. In fact, anxiety can be contagious, in that we absorb and mirror the emotions around us.
What we can do about it:
- Limit exposure. Like with any source of contagion, avoiding contact as much as possible is important. So, spend less time watching the news and scrolling social media, and limit your time with others who are persistently anxious.
- Question the fear. Ask yourself if what feels risky or scary is really that bad after all.
- Acknowledge the anxiety you feel, rather than trying to repress it. Then process it, and develop coping strategies to manage or decrease it.
- Replace negative emotions with positive ones. When you notice that anxiety is becoming your dominant emotion, try to replace it with gratitude, or excitement, or joy. Fill your mind, and your life, with things and people that make you feel those desirable emotions, and you’ll have less room to feel anxious.
Final words: Whether we realize it or not, anxiety changes us
Whether or not you personally have experienced heightened anxiety in the last few years, we’ve collectively gone through some challenging and unfamiliar times. Even though the original source of anxiety is gone or reduced, the world around us has remained changed. And we also may have changed, perhaps by becoming more averse to risk, less resilient, or otherwise less comfortable in the life we now find ourselves expected to live.
How you deal with that differs from person to person. The tips in this article may help, but it's worth spending some time creating a stress-management plan that's tailored to your personality type. By being mindful of our individual triggers, we can better manage stress and anxiety and live calmer, healthier lives.