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The Telegraph

‘I’ve forgotten how to make small talk’: Are you suffering from re-entry anxiety?

Before March of last year, Izzy Rose rarely spent an evening in. At 21 she was thriving on the first rungs of her career in music and fashion marketing; weeknights usually meant networking events at swish hotels, where she collected all the free drinks she could handle. At weekends, she danced with her friends in underground nightclubs. It “felt like the world was ending” when lockdown was imposed last year, she remembers, confining her to her east London flat, which she shares with her boyfriend. If the Government’s roadmap is to be believed, that adventure-packed life could be back on the cards by summer. But instead of filling her with excitement, Rose feels only dread. “It brings me anxiety to think about going back to how busy I was, meeting new people every day. I was so on the ball before; I could small-talk away. Now, I’ve kind of forgotten how to do all that.” Her words shed light on a peculiar trend some psychologists are calling “re-entry anxiety”. After a year of Zoom and banana bread-baking, psychologists fear we have become a nation of hermits, afraid to leave our front door – even once the threat of Covid has receded. A large study published this week by the Together Coalition, a charity chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, found one-third of Britons think the country will not go back to the way it was before Covid, because we have become accustomed to staying apart. “Everyone, to some extent, will have become deskilled at socialising,” says Dr Kamran Ahmed, a clinical psychologist who has written about his own battles with social anxiety. “If we’re not using our social muscles then we get a little bit out of practice – just like with anything else.” Those feeling anxious fall generally into two camps, he says. In the first group are those with a diagnosed condition, like social anxiety disorder. They probably felt relieved when lockdown was imposed, but there is a danger their condition has become “entrenched”. Far less attention has been paid to the second group: those without any diagnosed anxiety disorder, but who are feeling frightened, perhaps unable to sleep, at the thought of getting on a crowded train carriage, or seeing groups of friends. Dr Ahmed, who is from the UK but now lives in Sydney, remembers how bizarre he felt attending a party after the Australian city emerged from its first lockdown last year. “I think I’d almost forgotten how to dance.” In a 2010 study, neuroscientists looked inside the brains of socialites with large circles of friends, and found their amygdala regions (responsible for emotional processing) tended to be larger than average. Some think this region can grow and shrink depending on the rhythm of a person’s life; research published in 2012 found that veterans tend to have smaller than average amygdala regions after experiencing a traumatic battlefield event. A long time in solitude can also affect the balance of hormones in your blood associated with stress and bonding.

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