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May 1, 2020 0 Comments

Happy to be home: How the pandemic is providing some relief to people with severe social anxiety

Jeremy Dobski feels as if he’s been preparing for this pandemic his whole life.

The Toronto comedian and entertainer, despite being a performer, has suffered from severe social anxiety since childhood. He’s also experienced agoraphobia, a condition classically described as a fear of public places but can also manifest with people feeling anxious in settings or situations where they cannot easily escape.

In severe cases, a person with agoraphobia considers their home to be the only safe place.

While there have been many reports of anxiety on the rise among the general population, for people like Dobski, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually been somewhat of a relief.

“At the beginning of all this, everyone’s panicking, and I was pretty calm,” Dobski said from his apartment in midtown Toronto. “I’ve been pretty calm overall. Like sometimes it’s bad, but it’s no different than like any other day.”

For Dobski’s entire life, leaving the house has been an ordeal. He sometimes needs to create a list of goals for the day to motivate himself to leave the house.

“Every day I wake up and I have to deal with anxiety. The minute I open my eyes, any time I want to leave the house, I have to like, do a whole bunch of things to make sure that I feel ready,” Dobski said. “It’s like this immense indecision that comes over me. So, reasons to not go and reasons to go both overwhelm me at the same time. … It’s almost like my brain is finding excuses.”

He’s always been uncomfortable in large crowds and party settings, doesn’t like close contact with others and is also a germaphobe. He has observed how many people who have never experienced these anxieties can now relate due to the shock waves COVID-19 have sent through society.

“It’s like this strange thing that I was protecting myself from all of this for so long and being told there was something wrong with that. And here we are in a position where I’m ready to kind of deal with this.”

Dobski first started experiencing panic attacks related to social anxiety as early as age eight or nine. He describes them as not being triggered by anything in particular but a sort of “revving up of the nervous system that happens out of nowhere.”

“I had trouble leaving the house … when it started was with like, severe anxiety as a kid,” Dobski said. “And I would just end up kind of, what’s the word, I guess, isolating?”

He spent much of his adolescence cooped up inside with a book or Lego blocks and turned to drugs and alcohol in his teens to deal with social situations like house parties. That carried over into university when his challenges with mental health and addiction reached their worst.

One of the main characteristics of agoraphobia is a fear of losing control and being unable to escape a situation where a person feels unsafe. It can manifest in different ways; some experience panic attacks if they’re too far away from home or find they are unable to board a flight or a boat. Others get overwhelmed by crowds, large open spaces or being outside alone.

Dobski, who says he still cannot attend parties and gets severe anxiety thinking about travel, finds comfort in what seem contradictory to some — performing to a live crowd. He said being on stage is one of the only places where he feels comfortable. It’s something he’s heard from a lot of other performers.

“Comedy’s kind of the thing that got me out of the house. … I think that’s why so many comedians have social anxiety. It’s a way of finding control,” Dobski said.

That feeling of maintaining a sense of control is something Tiffany Nuo Di Lin, a speech language pathologist in Markham, can relate to. About two or three years ago, an overactive bladder started causing her severe anxiety whenever she would go out.

She would get anxious and worry if there would be a washroom nearby if she needed one. It started to consume her thoughts whenever she left the house.

It reached a point where she would make a mental map of all the public bathrooms in an area before she went out.

“I would have to, like, Google map it to see, like, if it’s a safe place for me go,” she said. “It’s actually a lot of mental prep.”

Over the years, her condition has worsened. Her job requires her to drive to different schools and meet private clients at their home. Over time, that became more challenging.

She used to visit clients as far away as downtown Toronto, Peterborough, Oshawa and Pickering. But she’s had to scale back to offering in-person services only in Markham, north Toronto and Scarborough because travelling too far from her house triggers her agoraphobia.

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So these days, she’s happy to be home because she can do most of her work via telephone and video.

“It’s coming from a really privileged position. I would say that, you know, I’m kind of OK with this pandemic right now,” she said.

The only minor adjustment she’s made was getting used to her partner being home 24/7 after she lost her restaurant job.

“After that initial period, I could feel my mood going up actually,” Nuo Di Lin said. “I was working, I was making new materials for my students. You know, like I was actually doing other activities other than just sitting there and thinking about my anxiety. And people have noticed, like, ‘Hey … you actually seem happier’.”

Not having to constantly come up with excuses for why she doesn’t feel like hanging out with friends and family has been a relief, she said.

“Like, honestly, I don’t have to wake up each day and think about how to say no to people.”

But she also realizes that when things do return to normal, it may be that much harder for her to adjust back to social interaction.

“It’s a nice mix of, like, I am blissful right now at home. And then I do know … the governments are thinking of slowly opening things up,” she said.

Greg Dubord, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, said in an email that he wasn’t surprised to hear that some people with agoraphobia were living their best life during the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that many agoraphobics, as well as many socially anxious people, are on some level pleased that we have a shutdown. Now they can do what they are naturally inclined to do without any layer of shame,” he said.

But he noted that while they may be experiencing relief from exposure anxiety, many are also experiencing heightened anxiety due to health and finances. He expects agoraphobic tendencies will become “more entrenched” post-pandemic.

“The good news is that agoraphobia is relatively straightforward to treat with cognitive behaviour therapy. Assuming there are not a lot of coexisting conditions, the vast majority of those who seek out help are extremely pleased with the results,” he said.

For Dobski, it’s just nice to know people can relate to him in a way they couldn’t before. And at the very least, the pandemic has provided some new observations for his comedy routine.

“It’s funny, I’ve been working on this my whole life. Being like, well, this isn’t normal, and now that it’s the new normal, I’m like, everyone has it. … I’m just a little more sensitive to it.”

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