My friends are acting like this pandemic is over — how do I deal?

Lasse Kristensen/Moment/Getty Images
Originally Published: 

Never have I been more conscious of how much of a bubble I live in than during this pandemic. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, which began sheltering-in-place in March, businesses have largely stayed closed, and most of us are wearing masks and social distancing. The situation couldn’t be more different for my friends and family who are as concerned as I am about COVID-19, but whose states have reopened. Friends in Charleston, South Carolina have told me about packed bars, reckless hugging, and being the only ones wearing a mask in grocery stores. It seems like they're essentially living a different reality than those around them — which sounds extremely distressing. How do you deal when everyone around you thinks the pandemic is over?

First, know that your emotions are valid. Chances are, you’re feeling even more isolated now than you did when you started social distancing, says Paul Sasha Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic. “There was this sense that ‘we’re all in this together’ early in the pandemic, and that can be encouraging,” much like in the wake of September 11, when we felt a similar sense of collective responsibility. But as the pandemic has become increasingly politicized and polarized — with those who take it seriously on one side, and those who don’t (mostly Trump and his supporters) on the other — it’s really demoralizing to sacrifice your social life, and more, only to see those around you believe in another narrative.

Indeed, it's human nature to find comfort in narratives that match your own and validate your worldview, Nestadt says. Whether a friend disagrees with you on, say, policing, might remain hidden until you have a conversation about it, but you can gauge their beliefs about the pandemic based simply on whether you see them social distancing. Realizing someone you consider a friend has a different worldview from you can feel like having the ground ripped from beneath you.

Bernhard Lang/Stone/Getty Images

You might also feel angry and frustrated — more so if those around you believe the pandemic is a hoax, and perhaps less so, and with more understanding, if they simply feel cooped-up as we enter summer, says Petros Levounis, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, if you feel like you’re the only one worried about the pandemic, you’ll likely be able to move past this challenging time and grow from it, Nestadt says. “The majority of people are resilient and will do well, but I think some people with struggle,” particularly those with pre-existing mental health issues, like depression or an anxiety disorder.

If you manage depression, you might be especially vulnerable because “a big part of depression is self-doubt,” Nestadt tells me. That your friends are hugging and partying like a pandemic isn’t still in full swing basically sends the message that you’re wrong, magnifying that self-doubt.

This divide might also make therapy for depression trickier. A popular form of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, involves interrogating whether your depressed thoughts are based in reality by finding evidence from your life to support them, Nestadt says — usually there isn’t, which is the point. “When reality is in question, and you disagree on what reality is, that makes it a lot harder.”

Plus, “a lot of the work we do as therapists and psychiatrists is to encourage people [with depression] to go out and have meaningful, gratifying relationships,” which may be difficult if you don’t think it’s safe enough to hang out with people like you did pre-COVID, Levounis says.

If you have an anxiety disorder, you might also find it particularly difficult to cope right now if the people around you don’t seem as worried about the pandemic as you do. “Some people say the core of many anxiety disorders is the sense of uncertainty and doubt, often self-doubt,” Nestadt says. And if you manage such a disorder, you might’ve learned to cope by setting “calibrating points” about you do have certainty about, seeking insight from loved ones to help you do so, if needed — for instance, by asking them if it makes sense for you to be worrying about something.

To deal with the clash between your perception of the pandemic, and that of others around you, prioritize mental and physical self-care.

But you may be having a harder time “now that there’s no set gold standard of what’s true and what isn’t,” Nestadt says. And as with those who have depression, , you need socialization if you have certain anxiety disorders, like social anxiety, which may make this situation all the more challenging for you.

To deal with the clash between your perception of the pandemic, and that of others around you, Levounis recommends, firstly, prioritizing mental and physical self-care. Seek therapy if you haven't already, and if you have the means. Psychology Today lets you search for therapists by sexual orientation, gender identity, and ethnicities served. Therapy for Black Girls, and Therapy for Black Men, and the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network might also help you find therapists with identities that match yours. These days, many therapists offer their services online.

And if you notice that someone near you isn’t social distancing, take a step back, practice compassion, and appreciate the tragic situation we're all living through, Levounis suggests. Consider whether they may simply have a different interpretation of the Centers for Disease Control and other health guidelines. “None of us has all the answers, so let’s be kind to one another,” Levounis says. If compassion isn’t enough, you might want to gently confront them, which can allow you to exert control over a chaotic situation. “That is pretty much always psychologically helpful.”

As with climate change and other situations where we all share the consequences of each other’s actions, we need to accept that some people will just act more responsibly than others, Nestadt says. “Take comfort in the fact that you’re doing the best you can,” and remember that others are doing their best, too. Also, keep in mind that they’ll still be your friends and neighbors even after the pandemic, so try to not to strain your relationships with them too much. The pandemic isn’t over yet — much as those around you would like to believe it is — but take heart it that will be.