Before antibiotics, sunlight was used to speed up the healing of wounds, according to the Sunlight Institute. “All nature including humanity is solar-powered,” they go on to remind us. “Sunlight is man’s primary source of vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’. You get only a quarter of the vitamin D you need from your diet with the rest coming from the sun.”
“Deprived of sunlight, man loses physical vigour and strength. Take away sunlight and all life on earth would soon perish,” the institute declares. In a March 2020 Wexner Medical Center report, Whitney Christian, a family medicine physician and professor at The Ohio State University writes that psychological studies “link time spent out in fresh air and sunshine to a greater sense of vitality. … Going outside can get your brain moving, too. Even if you simply sit outside or take a short stroll, the sensory stimulation that nature provides eliminates boredom. We have a natural connection to living things. When we’re out in nature, it’s easy to feel like we belong in our environment and foster a sunny disposition.”
None of these proclamations should be surprising to us. Who doesn’t like sunlight and the great outdoors or know of its many benefits? So, it was surprising to learn that although people are starting to get comfortable resuming normal, pre-pandemic activities, not everyone is excited to go back out into the sunlight and society again.
“A lot of people are scared to death of going out,” Dr. Arthur Bregman, a psychiatrist in Miami, explained in a March interview with the local NBC-TV affiliate. “People have gotten into being isolated alone. They love being home.” The psychiatrist coined a name for this pandemic phenomenon: “cave syndrome.” It is being used to describe the reluctance to leave home, exacerbated during the pandemic. He points out that it is affecting many of his patients, especially those with preexisting conditions such as anxiety. “Even people that didn’t have agoraphobia, which is the fear of open spaces, people have it now,” he says.
Nicholas Goldberg, a columnist with the Los Angeles Times, picked up on this story out of Florida and mentioned the “cave syndrome” phenomenon in one of his columns. His email account lit up with thank-you notes for what one woman called “giving me a name for how I’m feeling.”
“At first it seemed odd to me that ‘cave syndrome’ struck such a chord, until I realized that I was having some of these feelings myself,” Goldberg writes. “I’m not a person who suffers from social anxiety; I’m not particularly shy or introverted. But I too feel a measure of discomfort at the idea of being back in the same physical space with other people — in a restaurant or at the office or in a store or a subway car.”
He began asking around. He consulted with Dr. Michael Dulchin, a psychiatrist at Union Square Practice in New York, who told him he had many of his patients reluctant or ambivalent to go back out into the world. Some “had actually felt relieved by the pandemic — by the respite from a competitive office, say, or the enforced hiatus from society, or the ability to put off decisions about the future. Some now dread resuming their soul-killing commute, or putting on an outfit for work and being judged for it, or simply reentering the rat race.” Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Goldberg that some people suffer from shame of how they spent their pandemic lockdown year. She adds that those who suffered from social anxiety before the pandemic “are particularly fearful about reentry and the ever-present possibility of rejection or humiliation.” She also stressed that it is not just people with preexisting phobias who are feeling conflicted.
According to U.S. Census Bureau information, at the end of 2020, more than one-third of Americans surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a substantial increase from the previous year. It was also reported that the numbers were substantially higher for young people living alone.
As Bregman, the Florida psychiatrist, explains to Goldberg, “Does this mean that you are mentally ill for liking the comfort of working from home and less social obligations? Not necessarily.” The danger, Bergman writes, “is in getting overly attached to the point where it interferes with life even in the face of a return to normalcy.” The therapists Goldberg spoke with, while conceding that a measure of ambivalence or even fear seems “perfectly natural … cautioned that people shouldn’t give in to it.”
Says clinical psychologist Taitz, “Anxiety feeds on avoidance.”
Goldberg then references the source from where the “cave” analogy comes: Plato’s allegory of prisoners captive in a cave, seeing only shadows on the wall. “They begin to believe the shadows are reality,” he writes. “Even when one prisoner is freed and can see the real moon and sun, he can’t convince the others that they’re seeing only a facsimile of the world, not the world itself. … Let’s not follow their example.”
We do not need a reminder of the devastating year now behind us and its many burdens and costs. “It’s a little less obvious why the end of the pandemic (assuming that’s what we’re coming to) would be traumatic as well,” concludes Goldberg.