by Kelsey Feldman
Trigger Warning: Mentions of 2020 ahead
In March of last year, the world as we knew it changed. What was, what we thought, going to be a few weeks at home quickly became several months. We were told by authorities and politicians to wear a face mask whenever we go out in public, distance ourselves from friends and family, and work from home. This left very little, if any, room for socializing. In fact, many of us became accustomed to the quarantine life, and some even thrived. Now here we are, over a year later, and some places are getting back to some semblance of normalcy.
No doubt it’s exciting, but there’s unmistakable fear in the air. We’re calling it Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety and rest assured; you are anything but alone. So many people have developed new or worsening social anxiety because of this sudden paradigm shift in life. The big joke is that we almost all have social anxiety now, but just how much truth is behind this? Let’s unpack it.
What is Social Anxiety? What is Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety?
There is no clear-cut definition for post-pandemic social anxiety, as everyone experiences it differently and with varying symptoms. However, the textbook definition of social anxiety is “A mental health condition marked by an intense, persistent fear of being watched or judged by others.” The meaning of social anxiety has shifted a bit, actually a lot, due to the pandemic. According to a study conducted this year by researchers at Brown University, 240 U.S. adults found that social anxiety symptoms increased during the pandemic. Those who have social anxiety may be apprehensive or afraid of socializing because one, they have been isolated for so long and lost fundamental social skills, and two, they are afraid of getting sick (these are just a couple of reasons). The CDC had told us that being around each other would lead to potentially contracting a potentially fatal virus. So yeah, it’s no wonder some of us are experiencing such intense feelings around socializing!
Signs and Symptoms
As mentioned before, when you have social anxiety, you may experience a sudden feeling of dread before or during a social engagement. Oftentimes, social anxiety and anticipatory anxiety go hand-in-hand, and the symptoms are both physical and behavioral. Symptoms of social anxiety include but are not limited to rapid heart rate, sweating, nausea, muscle tension, avoidance, and apprehension. Depression can also come as a result of social anxiety because those who are experiencing these feelings will feel a sense of guilt from missing out on memory-making moments (FOMO is real).
How to Calm Your Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety
You’ve been invited to the first dinner out with friends since the pandemic started, and just the thought of having to order your food aloud AND engage in fun banter makes you jittery. Here are some tips for easing the nerves before or during a social gathering.
Not everyone knows what it means to be mindful, so let’s first define this term that has worked its way into our mental health vocabulary. According to mindful.org, mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing.” All humans have the ability to be mindful, but like anything, it takes practice, practice, practice. There are a few different ways you can implement mindfulness into your routine right now! You can meditate in place, connect with your senses (through the 5,4,3,2,1 method), or take time to really zero in on your thoughts and emotions instead of pushing them down (big no-no, do not recommend).
Yoga and Meditation
The great thing about yoga and meditation is that they can be coupled with other calming techniques, like mindfulness. Yoga and meditation can be beneficial to those with anxiety disorders because they train you to be present and can lead to positive physiological changes in the brain. However, it is important to know that it may not work for everyone. A study conducted by the NYU School of Medicine found yoga to be “significantly more effective” for generalized anxiety disorder than stress management techniques. However, it was not as effective as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). As for meditation, one study found that just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation helped reduce anxiety symptoms. Of course, the only way you will know for sure if it works is if you try it yourself.
Deep breathing is at the very foundation of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. It is an important skill that can be magic when mastered and can remedy most physical symptoms of anxiety. People tend to think that deep breathing is simply longer inhales and exhales, but it’s a bit more than that. Deep breathing is really diaphragmatic breathing. With this type of breathing, you place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach. Then, you take a breath in from your abdomen while counting to three. You’ll know you are doing it right if you feel your stomach rise and fall. Practice every morning and night and see if you feel a difference.
If you want to pinpoint the reason(s) why you are experiencing social anxiety, journaling is an invaluable tool to integrate into your daily routine (or whenever you feel like it). For example, say you went out on a date and are mulling over something you said you felt was embarrassing; write out the scenario and why that moment felt embarrassing to you. Then, write down what you may do or say should you find yourself in that place again. Think of journaling as a form of venting. It is a way for you to spill your thoughts without the fear of judgment!
Therapy for Anything or Your Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety
Many types of therapy can be very effective in treating social anxiety disorder, with or without medication. Those with social anxiety are typically recommended to start with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which consists of three techniques: Exposure, cognitive restructuring, and social skills training. All three are designed to restructure the thought process to influence behavior and subsequent emotions positively. There is one other form of therapy that those with social anxiety are encouraged to explore, and that’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT teaches patients how to accept negative thought patterns and anxieties instead of pushing them down or eliminating them. ACT utilizes experiential exercises, as well as mindfulness. (Also, if you have any questions about therapy, you can always ask Rachel.)
How To Help Someone with Social Anxiety
If you suspect someone is suffering from social anxiety, there are a few signs to pay attention to. For starters, they may appear uncomfortable when in public; fidgeting, shaking, or red in the face. They may also be avoiding making plans, worry more than usual about social situations (or potential social situations), or suddenly leave a social setting. It can be heartbreaking to witness, so what can you do to help someone dear to you who is suffering?
1. Be Patient
If a friend or family member cancels plans because they are apprehensive about going out, be patient and do not take it personally. Going out in public regularly again will take some of us more time than others, and is especially daunting for those with social anxiety. So, be empathetic and understanding.
What Can You Say?
“No worries! Let me know when you want to go out. I am here for you.”
2. Encourage Them
When you have social anxiety, you’ll come up with any and every reason to not engage in social activities. If someone you know is giving you endless reasons for not going out, poke a bit. By poke we mean, tell them why it would be good for them to get out and around other people, and let them know that the option to leave is always available. Oftentimes, feeling as though there is no exit can be the root of social anxiety.
What Can You Say?
“Hey, I really think it could be good for you to get out. You’ve been in the house for a whole year. You can always leave if you get uncomfortable, and no one will question it.”
3. Distract with Care
You’re out with a friend, and they are acting nervous. They may even say so themselves. Try to get their mind off of the feelings they are experiencing. This will take some great social cue skills, and it may be necessary for you to get them away from wherever you are that is triggering them. Go outside for a walk around the block, head to the bathroom for a heart-to-heart, or ask them about something they are passionate about. Yes, sometimes talking can be just what someone with social anxiety needs to relax.
If you’re struggling with social anxiety, there are resources out there to help you navigate and manage it. Here are some we recommend:
National Social Anxiety Center