After a year of Zoom meetings, socially distanced coffees, and interacting more with Netflix than other humans, anxious thoughts about How To Talk To People Again make staying under your duvet incredibly appealing. Quarantine-induced social anxiety may be the next big hurdle in society’s post-pandemic return to normal.
“I just don’t ever want to leave the house,” Persephone, 28, who didn’t have social anxiety pre-quarantine, tells Bustle. “I’ve barely talked to anybody in person in 12 months.” She doesn’t have an action plan about diving back into “normal life,” because the thought is “too scary.”
“Anxiety levels are at an all time high, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2021 report,” psychologist Charmain Jackman Ph.D., founder of InnoPsych, tells Bustle. A study of 200,000 people in Europe, published in The Lancet in January 2021, found that anxiety and loneliness hit new peaks during COVID lockdown. And a small U.S. study of 240 adults forthcoming in Psychiatry Research in April 2021 discovered that social anxiety symptoms increased during COVID, as did feelings of isolation.
Social anxiety is different from generalized anxiety because it’s specific to interacting with others. If the thought of small talk, meeting strangers, big groups of people giving you attention, or being judged by those around you makes you uncomfortable to the point it’s impacting your ability to be in social situations, you could be dealing with social anxiety.
Given that the vaccine rollout means more and more people will get to return to safely seeing other people in person, how are you supposed to get a handle on post-COVID social anxiety? “The best thing that you can do for yourself is to practice self-compassion; be kind to yourself if you find that going out increases your anxiety,” says Jackman. If you’re feeling really worried about socializing again, here are some ways to cope.
Get To Know Your Anxiety
“When it comes to anxiety, getting as familiar as you can can help to generate as much control as possible,” Julia Jarrold LCSW, a therapist at mental health provider Real, tells Bustle. She suggests asking yourself questions about how you’re feeling about socializing now, to identify what triggers your anxious feelings.
Pinpoint the scenarios that make you feel worried: the thought of awkward conversations, asking people about whether they’re being COVID-safe, the return of crowded parties? “It may be helpful to collect information about what your social anxiety has learned during COVID,” Jarrold says. Maybe you’ve discovered that your Zoom limit is 10 to 15 minutes, or that you feel you don’t have anything to talk about, because all your days feel the same. When you figure out your triggers, Jarrold says, you can use them to brainstorm social occasions that will feel more comfortable for you.
Take It Slow
As you start getting invitations to hang out with other vaccinated people, you may feel overwhelmed. “Consider how many events you can tolerate in a week and follow that,” Jackman tells Bustle. She also recommends starting with people who are closest to you, as a way to build up your stamina. Short, low-pressure meet-ups with people who are sympathetic to your feelings can help ease your worries. “While you may feel pressure from others to go out, pace yourself!” she says.
Keep Things Small
“Remember that not everything has to go back to what it was like before COVID once it’s safe to gather again,” Jarrold says. “You’ve had a year of getting to know yourself and what feels OK, and a profoundly tough year at that.” If you can only handle one-on-one café dates with a short list of people, that’s completely OK. For bigger events, Jackman suggests asking about how many people have been invited before you make the decision to go or stay home. “Set small goals, and increase or decrease based on your comfort level,” she says.
Visualize Calming Places
“When it comes to anxiety about socializing with other people again after being isolated during a lockdown, I find it’s helpful to practice visualization exercises,” Mark Debus MSW LCSW, behavioral team lead at claims management company Sedgwick, tells Bustle. Close your eyes, visualize a scene or place that you find calming — a beach, or your childhood bedroom — and stay in that space until you feel your heart rate slow and your body relax. There are a lot of guided meditations online that can help with this, even for a few minutes.
Practice Relaxing Breathing
“Since we experience anxiety in both the body and the mind, real relief comes about when we focus on relaxing both,” Debus says. He recommends learning a few relaxing breathing techniques, like box breathing. “The beauty of these approaches is that you can begin to experience real relief in just a few minutes, even sitting in your car.” You can do it before you go into your office, a party, or that first family meet-up in a year. “There are many apps available such as Liberate, Shine and My Life that have mindfulness and meditation strategies,” Jackman says.
Tell Others How You’re Feeling
“Sharing your story and letting people know that you have social anxiety can actually really help,” Jackman says. They can be part of your coping plan if you start feeling anxious while you’re out; maybe they can take you outside, or leave you alone to breathe for a few minutes. “It can also help them to understand when you decline an invitation,” Jackman says. Don’t know how to ease it into the conversation? One good way, Jackman suggests, is bringing up a celebrity who’s shared their struggles with social anxiety, like Lili Reinhart.
Get Help If You Need It
“If you are not already seeing a therapist, this can be a good time to start,” Jackman says. Try finding one that specializes in anxiety about social situations. Jackman suggests looking at your workplace EAP and your health insurance for referrals that will fit what you need.
“By getting to know your anxiety and how it is showing up for you, you can make intentional and informed choices around what feels comfortable and safe,” Jarrold says. A (virtual) therapist can help you create a good action plan for your next invite into the real world.
Mark Debus MSW LCSW
Charmain Jackman Ph.D.
Julia Jarrold LCSW
Thompson, C., Mancebo, M. C., & Moitra, E. (2021). Changes in social anxiety symptoms and loneliness after increased isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry research, 298, 113834. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113834
Varga, T.V., Bu, F., Dissing, S.A, Elsenburg, L.K., et al. (2021) Loneliness, worries, anxiety, and precautionary behaviours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal analysis of 200,000 Western and Northern Europeans. The Lancet Regional Health - Europe. 100020 ISSN 2666-7762,. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lanepe.2020.100020.