COVID-19 ‘cave syndrome’ — A survivor’s guide


“At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him.”

— Plato (according to Socrates) in his allegory of the cave; The Republic, Book VII

The world of popular psychology is abuzz about ‘cave syndrome.’

Explored in publications ranging from the New Yorker to Scientific American, and featured in public health segments on national TV, the phenomenon describes unease at the prospect of returning to “normal life” on the heels of what has been — for many — a year or more in some level of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Cave syndrome’ describes a reluctance to return to the old way of doing things after getting used to “the new normal,” but it also reflects residual concern about the disease itself, and reflects underlying social anxieties amplified by recent solitude.

According to a report by the American Psychological Association, “Nearly half of Americans (49%) said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.” In the same study, around half of U.S. adults reported feeling very lonely during the coronavirus pandemic, with younger adults feeling the loneliest.

For many survivors of abuse however, it doesn’t take social distancing to reinforce feelings of isolation. Anxiety — and even dread — over social interaction can feel firmly etched in a survivors’ emotional landscape. Nevertheless, the shared experience of adjusting after the COVID-19 pandemic shines an important light on the interchange between trauma, isolation, relationships, resilience and healing.  

Feeling alone as a survivor … and getting connected

Isolation is a tool often used by abusers to cut off victims from potential help, and it’s abuse itself when a perpetrator isolates to gain power and control over their victim. While the shared experience of isolation during COVID-19 isn’t likely to have the depth of traumatic impact of domestic violence or abuse, there are parallels in how the brain processes trauma and isolation, regardless of the source.

Survivors of physical and sexual abuse often report feeling isolated well after initial experiences of trauma. Loneliness accompanies an increased risk for mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance-abuse disorders as seen among those abused as children. Meanwhile, survivors face increased risk for future trauma, compounding the solitude of their experience.

On the other hand, human connection is integral to preventing child abuse and to helping survivors heal. Resilience (and the things that nurture it) is at the heart of preventing abuse, recovering from trauma and finding a place in a world that can feel lonely.

Protective factors — like social support networks, mentors, high-quality childcare and education, mental health care — all rely heavily on connections between individuals, families and communities both in keeping children safe and in meeting the needs of survivors.

Some mental-health practices turned to tele-health options during the pandemic. Meanwhile some peer-support groups are flourishing in the digital-dominated “new normal” while others are struggling to stay in touch.

New habits and outlooks

Certain elements of social distancing have lasting allure: (for those who were not essential workers) the benefits of staying out of the office; the luxury of personal space; the COVID-19 “get-out-of-jail-free card” for any social engagement. Likewise, in light of apparent vaccine successes and the reduced restrictions of a gradually reopening society, it’s easy to feel rusty and awkward at ‘the social.’ The appeal of social distancing and hesitation to return from isolation can be expected.

Dr. Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland told CNN he’s cautious applying the term “cave syndrome” to a normal range of experiences. “We were resilient in adapting to spending more time alone at home,” he said, “and I think with practice those social skills are going to come back.”


Tips for survivors to ‘get out of the cave’:

  • If you are being treated for any disease or disorder, follow your doctor’s advice
  • Don’t compare yourself with others: Set goals for yourself, celebrate reaching them and ongoing improvement
  • Take your time and take care: Don’t feel like you have to get back to how things used to be right away. In fact, it might be a good time to change the way things were before!
  • Reach out for help if you need it: If you aren’t sure who to call, call 1-800-4-A-CHILD or visit childhelphotline.org