Adapting to Post-Pandemic Reality When You Have Social Anxiety

With society reopening, many people are experiencing new or worsening social anxiety. Things most people used to do daily, such as carpooling, talking to strangers, making small talk with work colleagues, and seeing old friends, have become anxiety-provoking for some. Whether you were already socially anxious before the pandemic, or you are developing social anxiety as a result of being in isolation, the prospect of returning to society can feel daunting to even the strongest person. A 2021 study of 240 U.S. adults found that social anxiety symptoms significantly increased during the COVID shutdowns.1 You might have forgotten how to behave around people, feel anxious about how social patterns have shifted, or find that conversation that used to flow easily is now exhausting. Rather than facing your fears, the common advice during the pandemic was to avoid the outside world, a behavior that served to reinforce social anxiety. Amongst these feelings of sensory overload and pressure to return to everyday life, you might be wondering—can I handle this, or more importantly, do I want to handle everything that I used to manage on a daily basis without trouble? The answer is not as straightforward as you might like it to be, but it involves a lot of coping strategies, a dose of self-compassion, and the recognition that you may need professional help if you were already struggling with social anxiety pre-pandemic and now it’s gotten worse. Impact of Existing Social Anxiety If you were already living with social anxiety before the pandemic began, you might have welcomed the opportunity to hide away in a cocoon of privacy where you didn’t have any pressure to talk to strangers, attend social gatherings, or make small talk at the water cooler. Afterward, you may have felt no hurry to get back to your old life and want to continue enjoying your safe haven. In fact, the thought of returning to normal life might have you gripped in a state of panic and dread. If you’re among the roughly 12% of Americans diagnosed with social anxiety disorder,2 then your fears likely go beyond a bit of trepidation, nervousness, or awkwardness. Instead, you probably used to face debilitating anxiety symptoms whenever faced with the situations that caused you fear. Now that vaccines are available and restrictions are being lifted, your anxiety has probably hit a point of being sky-high. Soon you will need to leave the comfort of your home and go back out into the world that always caused you so much anxiety and pain. Impact of New Social Anxiety A degree of collective social anxiety became the norm during the pandemic. Rates of social anxiety disorder, school refusal, and agoraphobia increased because of the simple fact that people were isolated and avoided social contact for so long. People who were already experiencing some social anxiety may be pushed to the point of needing professional help, whereas in the past they may have skated by or lived with what they thought was a frustrating but tolerable condition. The good news is that with these increasing numbers of cases of social anxiety will hopefully come a newfound understanding and respect for the plight of those who have always struggled with this affliction. For those who could never understand what it was like to live with social anxiety, they’ve been given a front-row ticket to a show they probably never wanted to see. Social anxiety tends to live in the shadows, so this can only be a good thing as far as bringing this problem to light. Hopefully, along with increased cases, there will be more accessible solutions and options for treatment that don’t require you to do the thing that is causing you anxiety (speaking to people in general). What Is Social Anxiety Disorder? How to Face Society Again While avoiding the situations that are causing you anxiety works in the short term, doing so actually maintains your anxiety over the long term. Instead, if you can gradually face those situations in small doses, your anxiety will not be as great, and you’ll be able to face more and more difficult tasks. If you aren’t sure how to go about getting out into society again, here are some tips to help: Make a point of leaving the house every day, even if it is only to go for a walk. Be the one in your household who goes out to get groceries. Make a trip to the pharmacy, just to get out of the house instead of using a delivery service. Before you actually need to go back to work full time, drive to your place of work and walk around for a bit until you start to feel more comfortable. If you are in school or have a child who was in school, go to the school and walk around for a bit to feel more comfortable before the first day back. Make a plan for how many social events you can tolerate in one day and then stick to that plan. Try to socialize in other ways if you still can’t leave the house, such as by talking on the phone, writing letters, using video calls, or sending emails to your loved ones or friends. Regardless of what you need to do, keep it gradual as you work to become immersed again into society. Start with the easier things and work your way up to the harder things. You can also couple these exposures with relaxation techniques, both before, during, and after the experience, to help ease the anxiety. Be empathetic to yourself if you feel anxious. But don’t let that stop you from taking the steps to stop avoiding the things that you need to do the most. Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety These can help you whether you are experiencing new social anxiety or you’ve dealt with it for a long time. Identify things that tend to trigger you and have a plan as to what you will do when that happens, such as writing down your thoughts in a journal. Visualize a calming spot like the beach when you feel your worries running away from you. Practice deep breathing exercises to help you feel less anxious, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Practice mindfulness or meditation to get control of your anxiety. Use thought records to keep track of your anxious thoughts and negative thinking patterns and try to turn those into positive coping statements. Attend an online yoga class both to reduce your anxiety and also practice being in a group again. Go for meditative walks to feel less anxious or to clear your mind. Write down everything that is worrying you and place it into a box so that you can stop thinking about it. Do things to soothe yourself such as watching funny shows or using a mental health app. If you have pets, rely on them for emotional support to help comfort you when you are feeling anxiety or anxious feelings. Write in a gratitude journal each day to remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for. Therapy for Social Anxiety If you were previously struggling with social anxiety, you may need to seek out professional help to deal with anxiety that has gotten worse. Seeing a therapist who offers cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or other supportive therapies for anxiety will help. You could also consider joining a group therapy program to practice your social skills as you work on your social anxiety. While it might feel very hard to participate in therapy at the moment after being isolated for so long, it could be that your anxiety is to the point that you can’t manage it on your own anymore. Practice Self Compassion Above all else, it is important to remember to practice self compassion if you are dealing with social anxiety after the pandemic. Below are some tips to help you do this. Don’t push yourself to go fast; go at your own pace when dealing with your social anxiety. Tell other people that you may need more time to do things that used to be easy for you. Understand that everyone will have a different comfort level and it is OK to set boundaries so people know where you stand. Don’t be in a hurry to return to your old life if it was causing you a lot of stress. Instead, re-evaluate what was important in your old life and what you might be able to let go of (to feel better). When Pandemic Concerns Increase Social Anxiety It might be hard to flip the switch in your mind from “avoid everyone” to “go back to socializing.” This can be especially true as vaccines rollout but not everyone has yet been vaccinated. How do you know how to behave around other people? Are they still social distancing or do they want a handshake from you? Below are some tips to deal with this specific type of anxiety. If you aren’t yet comfortable with physical interaction, it’s OK to avoid hugs until you feel like it’s safer for you personally. If you have patterns that have become ingrained, such as crossing the street to get away from other people, work on slowly changing these patterns since it will be hard to think in a different way. Realize that safety and anxiety are two different things, and get clear with yourself about why you are avoiding. If it’s because of anxiety, then take efforts to challenge the fear instead of pretending that you are still keeping yourself safe from the pandemic. Remember, avoidance only increases anxiety. Validating Your Emotions As you are preparing to re-enter the world, your workplace, a friend group, or the broader community, it’s important to keep in mind that all of your emotions are valid right now. Whether you are feeling socially anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, or in despair, you are not alone and many others feel the same way. In the past many people with social anxiety were brushed off as having a problem that was “not real.” Increasingly, the world is going to recognize that the reality of those living with social anxiety is anything but made-up for attention. As you go about your business, feel free to share with others if you are feeling anxious or afraid. Don’t feel as though you have to keep everything inside, because for once there are others who are probably feeling the same way as you. Let it be awkward so that you can get it out in the open that you aren’t feeling that good about things. It might make it easier in the long run. A Word From Verywell Whether you already had social anxiety or this is a new experience for you, post-pandemic life is going to be challenging. However, that does not mean that is insurmountable for you to return to a life that makes sense for you. That life might not look the same as it was in the past, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Keep an open mind, allow yourself to be friendly (because others may be feeling the same as you), and do your best to get out for a little bit each day. Eventually, you should start to feel better about your circumstances and may not even remember the time when things were so hard.

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