I know some people have hated the last year of lockdowns. But for me, it’s been something close to life-changing. I have Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), an irrational fear of other people. It affects up to 10% of the UK population and millions more worldwide. It’s more than being introverted or shy: SAD is a fear that doesn’t go away and interferes with everyday activities, from simple things like going into a shop to more important stuff like turning up for work.

Red Face

Red Face

My social anxiety has always been fuelled by blushing. I started blushing uncontrollably as a teenager. It stayed with me all through university and got worse in the workplace. I still blush today as a 40-year-old man. And not just when I’m embarrassed. I can go red at any time, in any place – frequently during mundane events like asking someone for directions or simply making eye contact with another human being.

When I was younger it led me into cycles of avoidance: staying away from situations that might make me blush. Those situations, of course, always involved people. Meetings at work, meals with friends: if I knew I’d be close to people, I worked hard to avoid it.

Things improved over time. I got older, I developed coping strategies. But the SAD has never gone away. It’s always there, simmering in the background, threatening to make me blush. Particularly when I’m in the office.

So when COVID-19 arrived last year and millions of people were sent away to work from home, I couldn’t quite believe it. Overnight, everything that historically distressed me just vanished. I know social distancing has been distressing in other ways, for other people. And many folks can’t wait to get back to normal. But the New Normal outside the office has been treating me really well. Here are just a couple of reasons why.

I’m so much more productive

Without all the noise and constant interruptions of an open plan office, I find a deeper level of focus. And get a hell of a lot more done. Before the workday’s over I feel like I’ve achieved twice as much. I’ve heard people describing ‘flow’ before. When they’re so absorbed in work they completely lose themselves and any awareness of the world around them. When they leave their flow state, they find they’ve done their best work of the day.

I’ve never experienced flow like that in a crowded workplace. In the office I used to look for places to run away to, so I could put all my effort into my work instead of managing my SAD. Sometimes I’d leave the office altogether and sit in a cafe, desperately seeking that elusive flow. But when I’m at home, in my own space, with enough quiet to think and do freely, the flow comes to me.

I control my SAD, not the other way around

Working remotely has given me a sense of control I’ve been missing for years. The office and the people in it don’t dictate my every move anymore. Yes, there are still meetings and Zoom calls and deadlines to hit. But mentally and emotionally I’m completely free of a communal social environment. All the things that habitually terrify me, like unexpected conversations or lots of people seeing me blush, are now gone. At home I control all the variables and there are very few surprises.

Even events that trouble me the most, like talking in groups or presenting to clients, have become more manageable. I find it easier to speak to people through a computer screen. Being one step removed makes all the difference for me. When I’m talking to lots of people online, it’s harder for them to see me blush. We’re not in the same room and I don’t feel trapped, so I relax more. My face, my body, my whole existence shrinks down to a little square on a screen. It means I think better. I present better. I feel protected and my phobia runs out of steam.

There’s a joke doing the rounds right now among the introverts, telling a world paralysed by social distancing: “we’ve been preparing for this moment our whole lives”. I can’t say I was preparing for it, because I never thought it would happen. But over the last year it’s put my Social Anxiety on mute, in a way that nothing else ever has.

Now I’m unprepared for the moment when it will have to switch back on.

Redface: How I Learnt To Live With Social Anxiety by Russell Norris is published on 1st April 2021 by Canbury Press, priced £9.99, available online and from all good bookstores

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