If you’re feeling like your social skills have gotten a little rusty during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. As social distancing restrictions loosen and more people become fully vaccinated, social anxiety is increasingly common — and totally normal.
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Clinical psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, shares practical advice for those feeling nervous about a return to relative normalcy after spending the last year in quarantine, communicating with others through a screen or from behind a face mask.
Q: Is anxiety typical after being isolated for so long?
A: Absolutely. As social distancing restrictions loosen, it’s normal to feel some nervousness or anxiety, especially if you’ve been relatively isolated or in a small bubble during the pandemic and are now starting to socialize in larger groups or with people you haven’t seen for a while.
In addition to standard concerns about health and safety, people with social anxiety are likely to be worried about doing things “right” — messing up social norms by making a misstep or not knowing what to do. They may stress about questions like, “Am I supposed to hug this person? Should I shake their hand or do an elbow bump? How close should I stand?”
Q: What, exactly, does it mean to have social anxiety?
A: Just like it sounds, the term refers to the experience of anxiety in a social context. But it’s more than just feeling a little bit nervous. People with social anxiety often feel like others are laughing at them or judging them, even if that’s not the case.
If you have social anxiety disorder, you may worry that you’re going to trip over your words or that other people will notice how nervous you’re feeling — or that you’re blushing or sweating, even if you aren’t. These concerns can be limited to certain settings, like public speaking, or they can apply to any social situations with other people, especially unfamiliar ones.
There’s a lot going on in the mind of a person with social anxiety, which can be distracting and make it difficult for them to actually engage effectively in a social situation.
Q: How can we reestablish healthy in-person conversation practices?
A: You may find it physically and emotionally exhausting to relearn all those little social graces that you haven’t actively practiced during the pandemic. Just try to be kind to yourself throughout the process.
Remember that we’re all getting used to certain conversational elements, including tone of voice, not interrupting and taking a breath before speaking. Our comfort level with those practices will likely come back pretty quickly once we get used to them.
And try not to worry about awkward silences or those moments when you don’t know what to say. Remember: There are always two people in the conversation, and each of you shares 50% of the burden of filling that air space.
Sometimes, pointing out your discomfort can defuse tension, too. When you say, “Well, I seem to have run out of things to talk about,” you may find that the other person’s response is, “Oh, thank goodness. I don’t know what to say, either!” That kind of honesty can help you both cope.
Q: How can we approach anxiety around physical greetings, such as handshakes and hugs?
A: It’s important to respect your own boundaries. Be brave and try to get out there and socialize, but if you feel pressured to greet somebody in a way that makes you uncomfortable, don’t push yourself.
If someone goes in for a handshake or a hug and you’re not OK with it, employ the old “It’s not you, it’s me” line. You can say, “I know you’re vaccinated and probably don’t have COVID-19, but I’m just not ready yet. I’m so happy to see you, though!”
Q: How can prepare ourselves to start socializing again? Will anything help to ease the anxiety?
A: Try to take it slow and, wherever possible, allow yourself to ease back into socializing.
Don’t rush back into social plans and suddenly book your social calendar full after having been physically isolated for the past year. If you have the flexibility to do so, start slowly by going back to the office one or two days a week, just see how you feel.
You may benefit from some social support, too. Reach out to the people closest to you and ask them: “How did you feel the first time you got back in the office? What was that like for you? How did you deal with it?”
And when the time comes, practice coping before you need to. Try to take it easy the day before you have something big going on. The night your first day back in the office, eat a healthy meal, go to sleep early and avoid alcohol and anything else that might negatively impact how you feel the next day.
Q: How long will our pandemic-related social anxiety last?
A: With social anxiety, the anticipation is often worse than the actual event itself. You may start to feel better once you’re able to see that that the worst has not, in fact, happened — maybe after a couple days back in the office or a few larger social interactions. Your skills will probably return much faster than you think.
But if your nervousness persists, interferes with concentration or makes you feel symptoms of panic — including trouble breathing, a racing heart and feeling shaky or faint — it may be time to talk to a doctor.
No one will forget this pandemic, especially those who’ve experienced so much hardship and grief. But people can recover from loss and trauma, and they can also show incredible resilience.