Dreading the Return to Pre-Pandemic Life? Psychologists Talk Post-COVID Social Anxiety
Doctors share tips for coping with social anxiety after a year of isolation.
As the pandemic began to intensify last March, people joked that quarantine was the perfect excuse to cancel plans, a welcome relief for introverts and the less socially inclined. Now, after months of isolation and limited face-to-face interaction, the world is beginning to open back up, signaling the return of pre-pandemic life.
Though many of us, now fully vaccinated, look forward to socializing in a less inhibited manner — at parties, bars and the office, for example — some are less thrilled about the return to water cooler conversations and group gatherings. Plenty of us can laugh about brushing up on social skills after a year of FaceTime dates and Zoom meetings, but for those who suffer from social anxiety, the reality of post-COVID life is much more nerve-racking.
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, HYPEBAE spoke to doctors about how to ease into social interaction and cope with pandemic-induced social anxiety. Keep reading for their tips.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is more than just introversion or shyness. Alexandra Werntz, a clinical psychologist and post-doctorate researcher at the University of Virginia, describes social anxiety as the fear of being negatively judged during social interactions. Those with social anxiety disorder experience this fear so intensely that it interferes with daily life — for example, they may avoid going to work or school, eating in front of others or using a public restroom. “What’s really important to know is that avoidance is one of the worst things someone with anxiety can do,” Werntz adds. “Avoiding a scary or anxiety-provoking situation actually tells your brain, ‘Hey, this situation is really bad, and it’s good we avoided it,’ she explains. In effect, avoiding social situations makes social anxiety worse — instead, actively engaging in social interactions will, over time, disconfirm anxious thoughts (most interactions do not result in negative judgment or ridicule).
Even if you aren’t diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, you most likely understand the feelings that accompany social anxiety. According to Mark Leary, a professor of psychology at Duke University, everyone experiences some nervousness surrounding social interactions. “The impressions that we make on other people — whether they perceive us in desired or undesired ways — have far-ranging effects on many outcomes in our life,” Leary notes. “Our jobs, friendships, romantic relationships and social lives are all affected by what other people think of us, so it’s natural to want to be perceived in certain ways,” he says, adding that although unpleasant, a certain degree of social anxiety is normal. “Knowing that it’s normal helps many people shrug their uneasiness off more easily.”
For many, the pandemic has intensified social anxiety
The pandemic turned the concept of social anxiety on its head. For those who deal with the disorder, quarantine mandates and social distancing guidelines simply reinforced pre-existing fears (“Hey! People are actually scary and threatening!” Werntz illustrates). In addition, the pandemic decreased the number of opportunities to practice social skills, a crucial step in overcoming anxiety. “Reaching out to people when you don’t naturally run into them takes a certain amount of confidence,” says Therese Rosenblatt, psychologist and author of upcoming book How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age. “During the pandemic it [took] even more forwardness, [which was] difficult for those who are hesitant to begin with.”
Recognize the thoughts and feelings that emerge when you socialize
Werntz advocates for recognizing anxiety and acknowledging its evolutionary function. The expert offers examples of thoughts that might arise while engaging in day-to-day interactions: “‘This person is going to think you’re so dumb if you hesitate while ordering your coffee,’ or ‘This stranger will never like you if you don’t answer their question perfectly,’” she illustrates. These fearful thoughts are your body’s way of keeping you out of danger — “You can acknowledge those anxious thoughts, say thank you to your brain for trying to keep you alive, and then challenge yourself to order the coffee or talk to the stranger anyway,” Werntz suggests. (More on challenging yourself later.)
Ease into social situations
Taking it slow is key — instead of throwing yourself into back-to-back parties, Krystal Lewis, a psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, recommends making a list of social interactions and working towards completing each entry on the list. “Putting yourself in these challenging situations can help build confidence and efficacy when you see that it isn’t as bad as you have worked up in your mind,” Lewis explains. “Even if it doesn’t go well, you learn that you can handle it.” Working with a therapist or sharing your goals with a family member or friend can help hold you accountable when tackling your social to-dos.
If you’re unsure where to start, Lewis recommends having a conversation with one new person. “It can be as small as smiling at the cashier or saying hello to a stranger,” she clarifies. From there, you can work up to tasks you might find more difficult, such as calling a restaurant or going to a store and asking an employee a question. Rosenblatt also proposes getting re-involved in activities that lend themselves to casual contact with — for example, going back to the gym, a yoga studio, or dining at your local cafe are ways to engage in conversation with patrons or employees.
Challenge yourself and remember that you are not alone
While easing back into pre-pandemic life, challenge yourself to confront situations that you know will make you feel uncomfortable. Social skills require practice, just like playing an instrument or a sport. With repeated exposure, chatting with strangers and making small talk will feel effortless.
“Remember that it’s okay if you feel anxious or uncomfortable while you’re socializing,” Werntz notes. “The key is tolerating those feelings of anxiety in the moment, and reminding yourself that being connected to others is actually something you want to do.” To help cope with those feelings of nervousness, Rosenblatt recommends shifting over-thinking to productive thinking: “If you know you are going to encounter someone or a situation that makes you anxious, rehearse how you would like to deal with it,” she suggests.
Lewis adds that re-framing negative thoughts as positive affirmations can also help. Instead of engaging in self-criticism, try telling yourself: “I can handle this,” “I am well prepared,” or “Everyone makes mistakes, this isn’t a big deal.” It may sound cheesy, but being your own cheerleader can make a huge difference.
If you’re still having trouble facing your anxieties, don’t beat yourself up. In fact, the people you’re dreading seeing likely share some of your nervousness. “The entire world is slowly re-emerging from varying levels of isolation. Everyone is grappling with some anxiety about reconnecting with the people in our lives,” Werntz assures. In fact, acknowledging the strangeness of our new normal is an easy and effective way to break the ice. “We can all relate to being awkward as we come out from hibernation,” the expert proclaims.
If you’re struggling, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers a list of mental health resources and a directory of therapists.