Social Anxiety Among Orthodox Jews
The pandemic, and social isolation, increased social anxiety and emotional challenges for orthodox Jews who live in communities with deep social connections.
Observant Jews are very much “people of the crowd”. Going to shul and community functions, large families, school evenings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and shared meals on Shabbat and Yom Tom means that most observant Jews had, before the pandemic, a rich web of social interaction. Then, came long periods of social distancing with increased levels of anxiety. Many people are unable to just “bounce back” and instead, continue to feel social anxiety around others outside of their families, and especially in crowds, elevated levels of stress.
Have social interactions become a new source of stress for you? Are you having trouble getting back to “normal”? Is it difficult for you to be around people in school, synagogue, or a simcha?
Social anxiety tends to persist once it develops
The isolation created during long periods of closed schools and social distancing has persistent effects, especially for people who may have struggled with anxiety before the pandemic. Going towards pre-pandemic routines won’t automatically reduce the anxiety that has built up over time.
During the pandemic, we all had less opportunity for social engagement. The practice that we had, on a daily basis, may have kept any underlying difficulty that we had dealing with groups or socializing under control. Without those daily interactions, we can become more and more anxious about being out in a group.
Social anxiety has become more common
We are engineered for “togetherness”. Yet, during the lockdown, some of us got habituated (to use a technical term) to the idea that social situations are dangerous for us or our family. While social distancing kept us from getting sick, our brain got habituated to the idea that only isolation is safe.
Once the risk of socializing decreases, your brain might not just switch back to “it’s okay to socialize”. Habituation doesn’t just turn off once circumstances change.
How a sense of coherence affects religious Jews in and after the pandemic
A Sense of Coherence (SOC) is an orientation to see the world as more or less comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful. Psychologists anticipate that people with strong SOC are less likely to develop psychological distress when facing stressful events, including a global pandemic!
With strong social support networks and a framework that imbues life with meaning, many orthodox Jews entered the pandemic with a strong sense of coherence.Research conducted during the pandemic found that very observant Jews had the highest levels of sense of coherence and other resilience factors in the face of the pandemic. Religiosity and trust in God correlated strongly with lower stress levels.
The good news is that religious observance does help. The bad news is that religious observance helps somewhat, but it still leaves us vulnerable to pandemic and post-pandemic anxiety. For those struggling to regain your pre-Covid level of socialization and interaction, gradually increasing the time you interact with others and stretching your comfort zone can help. Some people can work up to socializing with a friend or two, which other people may benefit from short term interventions such as a few sessions of cognitive behavior therapy to become more comfortable while resuming their social interactions. Whatever you chose to do, don’t let relatively short-term discomfort derail your long-term success with others.
Braun-Lewensohn, O., Abu-Kaf, S., & Kalagy, T. (2021). Hope and Resilience During a Pandemic Among Three Cultural Groups in Israel: The Second Wave of Covid-19. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 637349. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.637349
Pirutinsky, S., Cherniak, A. D., & Rosmarin, D. H. (2020). COVID-19, Mental Health, and Religious Coping Among American Orthodox Jews. Journal of religion and health, 59(5), 2288–2301. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-020-01070-z
Weinberger-Litman, S. L., Litman, L., Rosen, Z., Rosmarin, D. H., & Rosenzweig, C. (2020, June 8). A look at the first quarantined community in the United States: Response of religious communal organizations and implications for public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/ujns9