Anxious about life after the pandemic? Therapists have a prescription: Volunteering

Psychologists recommend volunteering as a means of "re-entry" and a good way to build self-esteem

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 30, 2021 9:01AM (EDT)

Community food bank volunteers working during COVID-19 crisis (Getty Images)
Community food bank volunteers working during COVID-19 crisis (Getty Images)

The world is slowly opening up again.

In the United States, Americans are on the precipice of the point where all adults will be eligible to be vaccinated. This means social gatherings — without the fear of catching a deadly virus nor a long-winded list of government mandated restrictions — are nearly possible.

Yet while the idea of a return to a so-called normal is exciting for some people, it is paralyzing for others. Not everyone is ready for such a rumspringa, even the extroverts among us, as Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote. Indeed, even if you are naturally a social person, it is normal to feel that one's social skills have decayed over the past year. When is the last time you gave someone a hug who wasn't in your immediately family? 

Coming out of a long stretch in which social rules are totally different, therapists say it's normal to fear re-entry. And they have an interesting prescription for easing oneself back into socializing: volunteering. 

"It's a wonderful way to connect, especially if volunteering is something that's new to the person," Dr. Ken Yeager, the clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Salon. "Going out and doing new things, new activities, meeting new people, are things to keep people from going into a state of depression," he added. 

Even before the pandemic, volunteering was often a salve for loneliness — which, for years, has constituted an epidemic in the United States, and comes with its own host of health issues. Indeed, loneliness is a real concern for many therapists, as it can sometimes turn into depression.

"If the loneliness transfers into depression, then it becomes a bigger problem because the individual has difficulty mustering the energy to move forward," Yeager said. "There are people I worry about — people who are more than the introverts, but those who have difficulties interacting with others, those who may find themselves in a very isolated space. I worry about folks not being able to reconnect."

This is why Yeager, and a handful of other therapists, suggested volunteering as a way to re-enter society, a means to learn how to socialize again, and ease the loneliness that might linger after the pandemic. Fortunately, there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities: from food banks struggling with a surge in demand across the country to mass vaccination sites looking for volunteers to help with administrative tasks, the country needs help emerging from this once-in-a-century disaster.

Volunteering is a boon to both the helped and the helpers, Yeager noted, adding that doing a volunteer activity that involves learning something new can help build resilience.

"Those who are the healthiest, those who are the most mentally fit, are those who exercise their brain, and that comes from learning new activities," Yeager said. "Begin something new, take up something new, because that is going to keep your brain sharp — it's going to introduce you to new people, it's going to infuse energy into your life."

California-based therapist Nick Bognar said he often recommends volunteering to his clients who are lonely and/or anxious. Even during the pandemic, he's recommended it as long as it can be done safely. Bognar said one reason he does this is because volunteering is a good way to meet new people when they're at their best selves. Considering the pandemic has brought out the best and worst in people, it's likely a better option to meet someone new than, say, going to a bar, where a person's actions could be influenced by alcohol. If a person is already feel anxious and a lack of confidence about socializing, volunteering is a way to set that person up for success and build self-esteem.

"If you're volunteering, you're going to meet somebody who is doing their best work and being their best self, and that's a great way to meet people," Bognar said. Bognar noted that it can be difficult to make friends outside of school. "When you're a kid in a classroom with other kids you're likely to find a friend, but once you're in adulthood the only people you hang out with and make friends are at work or through family. If there's any disruption to any of those that can be terribly lonely." If, for instance, there's a pandemic.

As Bognar alluded to, we all might feel a little awkward inside social spaces once restaurants and offices re-open. Bognar said that volunteering could shift the focus from the inevitable awkwardness, as volunteers are engaged in meaningful tasks. 

"It's a really good way to be connected to the world around you," Bognar said. "And a lot of times we really can lose our connection to the world around us and perspective on how other people's lives are."

Laurel Steinberg, PhD, a clinical psychotherapist who regularly "prescribes" volunteering to her clients, agreed. 

"Connecting with others while also helping them or an important cause is a great combination to help someone feel connected and part of a team," Steinberg said. "Whatever gets people to become comfortable spending time with others works — and hopefully the idea of contributing in a meaningful way will help them cast their fears aside and prioritize doing good in the world."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Covid-19 Mental Health Pandemic Reporting Volunteering