It's estimated that approximately 7% of all American adults have social anxiety disorder, a complex condition characterized by excessive worry about social situations and interpersonal interactions. Some experts postulate that COVID-19 has sparked a new trend: post-pandemic social anxiety.
If you have always struggled with social anxiety, the pandemic lockdowns may have initially come as a relief. No awkward hugs, no forced small talk among coworkers, no need to socialize much at the grocery store or bank.
You were told to stay home, and home may have quickly become a safe refuge. But now that the world is opening up and we're seeing a tremendous light at the end of a nightmarish tunnel- how do you cope with social anxiety as restrictions ease? What if you've seemingly forgotten how to interact or behave around others?
Understanding Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety
We are biologically wired for human connection, and prolonged social isolation can have detrimental effects on our physical and emotional well-being. Unfortunately, many people are experiencing some nerves and discomfort around socializing right now.
The reasons for this phenomenon are multifaceted. Some people may feel "rusty" or simply out-of-practice, especially if they've been working from home and limiting outside contact. Others may feel concerned about the virus transmission and want to keep themselves safe without sacrificing socialization.
Regardless of where you lie on this spectrum, it's important to remember that some level of anxiety is normal. We're all adjusting to massive changes, and it's been an unusual year for everyone. That said, typical anxiety may actually be post-pandemic anxiety if the anxiety:
feels entirely consuming and difficult to control.
has impacted your work, relationships, or self-esteem.
is affecting your sleep regularly.
has worsened your physical health.
is triggering you to engage in more escape behaviors like drinking, gambling, or overeating.
Take Baby Steps
There have been so many changes in the past year and a half, and it's normal to feel somewhat overwhelmed. However, remember that it's okay to ease back into the real world slowly. You don't need to fill your social calendar right away.
Some productive baby steps include:
committing to taking a walk or running an errand at least once a day.
making a plan to meet up with a friend at least once a week.
saying hello to a neighbor, cashier, or another person you don't know very well.
planning an event for a few weeks from now (and committing to attend!).
It's okay to move gradually and start with easier, manageable tasks before moving onto more difficult ones. Even if you still feel anxious during these activities, ongoing exposure is key for helping you feel more desensitized to your fears.
Affirm Yourself Often
It's crucial to practice ongoing self-compassion as you work through your social anxiety. This time has been undoubtedly challenging, and you can remind yourself that many people are facing setbacks and uncertainties as we transition into a new way of living.
validating your emotions and accepting them as being real and legitimate.
being mindful of your own limits and avoiding pushing yourself too fast.
setting boundaries when something feels completely uncomfortable or wrong.
remembering that you don't need the process of healing.
practicing affirmative statements when you feel anxious or overwhelmed.
engaging in ongoing self-care to keep your emotions balanced.
Challenge Your Thinking
Anxiety can be difficult because it can distort fear into absolute truth. In other words, it can convince you that the worst-case scenario is inevitable and that it's only a matter of time before your life falls apart. But, unfortunately, even if something bad does happen, worrying about it won't make things better, nor will it make you feel any better!
Instead, try to reflect on the automatic thinking that results from certain triggering situations. For example, maybe you feel worried that you won't know what to say if you have lunch with an old friend. So you start obsessing over the fear that you will sound dumb or silly and that your friend won't like you anymore.
Instead, pause and try to reframe the situation. If a friend wants to meet up with you, they probably enjoy your company! Furthermore, even if you say something that doesn't land the way you want, there's a good chance they won't notice, or you two can laugh about it.
The more you can examine more realistic or best-case outcomes, the less hold your anxiety will have over your happiness. Remember that the goal isn't to handle all social situations flawlessly- the goal is to work up the courage to show up and be yourself, even if you make a mistake!
Reintegration can be undoubtedly challenging, and adjusting to social situations may feel nerve-wracking right now. However, it doesn't mean you will feel this way forever. With time and practice, you can feel more comfortable in your daily interactions.
If you're struggling with post-pandemic anxiety, we can help. We understand how challenging the past year has been, and we're here to offer you support, compassion, and practical tools to help you navigate these tumultuous changes. Contact us today to learn more about our services!