Finally, we're starting to see the light at the end of one very long, dark tunnel. After more than a year of N95s, testing, speculation, fear, incalculable loss, vaccinations, and ever-changing local regulations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we're finally approaching something resembling normalcy. With 59% of American adults at least half-inoculated and studies confirming vaccine efficacy against the spread of coronavirus, the CDC announced on May 14 that fully-vaccinated people could congregate mask-free indoors where permitted. Enter: Cave Syndrome.
What Is "Cave Syndrome"?
On its face, all this progress should be a great thing. But a year of isolation and trauma have ignited new anxieties (and in many cases stoked existing ones) about how to return to normal. According to the American Psychological Association, 49% of all adults polled report feeling uneasy about returning to public society—and 48% of vaccinated adults agree. Dubbed "Cave Syndrome," the anxiety might have different individual triggers, but it's all undoubtedly a trauma response to one of the most tumultuous years in recent history.
What Is Cave Syndrome?
Cave syndrome affects people who are uneasy about post-pandemic life and reluctant to leave isolation after more than a year of shelter-in-place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Two Types
Cave syndrome is more than just a slight hesitation at eating indoors. According to Scientific American, sufferers typically fall into two camps. The first are those who have become accustomed to what we were calling our "new normal" last year. They're hesitant about rejoining public life because of the positive changes that came along with this new way of life: working from home, personal space in public, and no obligatory social gatherings.
The second group comprises vaccinated individuals who still have a deep fear of infection or spread despite science-backed assurances from the CDC. "There is this disconnect between the actual amount of risk and what people perceive as their risk," Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, explained to Scientific American. “We had to learn the habit of wearing masks, physical distancing or social distancing, not inviting people over,” he added. “It is very hard to break a habit once you form it."
Why It Happens
According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, those with existing anxieties, particularly surrounding social interactions or health, are more likely to have developed Cave Syndrome than others.
"When the 'all clear' bell suddenly goes off, people have to be concerned about what they are wearing, what they look like, trips they are or are not taking, in-person office politics, weddings, dinner parties, etc. Many of us are out of practice because we started to feel safe in our insular world," she explains.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a Neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member based in New York City.
How to Treat It
Fortunately, there are steps sufferers can take to mitigate some of that anxiety and slowly ease back into society. Dr. Hafeez is clear that it's best to start small and avoid flinging yourself into an intense situation before you're ready. She says that larger gatherings might feel more threatening, and suggests re-acclimating yourself on a scaled-down level. Rather than a group dinner at a crowded restaurant, dine somewhere quiet with two friends you fully trust. Instead of taking a long, overseas flight, try something domestic.
Equally important is to be kind to and patient with yourself. If you're reading this, you lived through a traumatizing time that forced us all to change nearly every aspect of daily life to protect ourselves and others—of course so many of us developed coping mechanisms and new forms of psychological distress. But what some mental health experts fear is that the most severe forms of Cave Syndrome could morph into something far more debilitating. If your anxieties feel too overwhelming to conquer on your own, reach out to a mental health service or trusted provider.
Try to move at your own pace—remove the fear of missing out, don't compare yourself to what others are able to do.
For those who think this is something they can handle on their own with time, Dr. Hafeez has a few key tips to remember. "Try to move at your own pace—remove the fear of missing out, don't compare yourself to what others are able to do, but do be willing to take small steps to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next phase," she tells Byrdie. "The pandemic was and continues to be a traumatizing event. As you begin to gain confidence doing smaller things with people you know and trust, you will gain confidence and be able to move on to new challenges with situations that are not as innately comfortable."
After a year-plus in the cave, everyone deserves to see some daylight.
Tartof SY, Slezak JM, Fischer H, et al. Effectiveness of mRNA BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccine up to 6 months in a large integrated health system in the USA: a retrospective cohort study. Lancet. 2021;398(10309):1407-1416. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02183-8
American Psychological Association. Stress in America: One Year Later, A New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns.
Scientific American. 'Cave Syndrome' Keeps the Vaccinated in Social Isolation.