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Leaving the lockdown bubble: how to cope with post-Covid social anxiety

Feeling anxious about socialising again after lockdown? You're not alone. Here are MTA’s best tips on how to manage post-Covid social anxiety.

‘Recently, my friends and I were planning our first proper post-lockdown meetup. It was months since we’d all been together and we were going to spend a Sunday afternoon by the river. I was really looking forward to it and yet, on the day itself, I messaged everyone to tell them I had a bad headache and couldn’t make it. But actually, that was a lie — I was just hit with a sudden wave of anxiety at having to be sociable again.’

Miranda is a 37-year-old marketing professional who, before the pandemic, enjoyed seeing her friends regularly for gigs, dining and pub nights. Occasionally, due to her social anxiety, she would find herself feeling overwhelmed around groups of people and sometimes avoided meetups altogether. Yet nowadays, she has an added struggle to deal with — the feeling that it is suddenly somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ to be socially anxious in our post-lockdown world.

‘I’m worried that I no longer have anything interesting to say’

‘After 12 months of everyone being separated, I feel like I almost have a moral obligation to suddenly “live life to the full”’ she explains. ‘But the issue is, my social anxiety hasn’t gone away — in fact, it’s now worse than ever as I feel out of practice as far as social skills go. Plus I’m worried that I no longer have anything interesting to say after so much time spent indoors — that I’ll just freeze up around my friends. Yet I also have this gnawing guilt about not seeing people after a whole year of social distancing, so I feel bad about that.’

Miranda isn’t alone. It seems that many people with social anxiety are feeling worried about leaving the lockdown ‘cocoon’. Because while they might have genuinely missed family members, friends and colleagues during the pandemic, their anxiety hasn’t suddenly vanished in the wake of softening lockdown restrictions. In fact, as Miranda points out, after a long time of limited interactions with others, it might even feel worse than ever.

And Miranda isn’t alone. A 2021 U.S. research study into social anxiety and the pandemic found that symptoms of the condition have significantly increased during the Covid-19. And in a recent BBC article, people with social anxiety described various worries, including being out of practice socially, not having anything interesting to talk about anymore, and feeling unsure about how changes in social etiquette (such as no hugging) might play out among friends.

How to cope with post-Covid social anxiety

Social anxiety can take various forms but overall it is a fear of social situations, including worrying about speaking to both friends and strangers. People with social anxiety can often feel fearful of saying the wrong thing, embarrassing themselves or ‘looking stupid’. They may feel that they are being continuously watched — as if under a spotlight — or judged by others. They may also feel solely ‘responsible’ for the success or failure of social interactions, for instance, thinking that they have to be entertaining or keep the conversation going. Symptoms could include feeling disorientated in social situations, falling silent, sweating, trembling, panicking, blushing, dizziness or palpitations.

And after a year of lockdown, many people who found respite from the pressures of socialising — and associated anxiety symptoms — are now having to face it all over again. If you find that you can relate to this, then here are six ways to help you manage social anxiety and move forward:

1 - Be honest with your friends

It’s understandable if you don’t want to discuss your social anxiety with every single person that you know. But it can definitely help to tell closer, more supportive friends how you are feeling.

This way, if you just don’t feel up to attending a social event, then you can simply be open about that rather than feeling guilty about making excuses. And once your friends understand the situation, you may find that they’re more accommodating about arranging ‘lower pressure’ meetups that you can all enjoy.

It might also be helpful to reflect on which relationships you want to keep in your life after lockdown. While it is true that no friendship is perfect, if a friend or friends repeatedly triggered your social anxiety then that’s worth examining. For instance, were there certain groups of people that you never quite felt accepted by? Or did you feel that you were walking on eggshells with some individuals or that they weren’t being ‘real’ with you?

If that’s the case, then it’s worth considering whether you want to continue with those friendships post-Covid, or let them go and focus on relationships that feel more enriching instead. Obviously, it’s important not to throw away good friendships over resolvable frustrations, yet it can be useful to take time to reflect on the effect that some friends have on you.

That said, if you notice a pattern in your life of people making you feel anxious, bad, drained, low or ignored, then it might be useful to chat to a therapist about this.

2 - Ease yourself back into socialising gradually

Related to the above point, if you don’t quite feel ready to jaunt across town on a Friday night to meet a group of friends in a busy pub just yet, then try not to be hard on yourself about this. Instead, why not make a list of the activities that feel more manageable to you right now?

These might include keeping initial meetups short, or seeing just one friend for a low pressure coffee, or meeting at a favourite spot near your home so that you have the comfort of familiarity. Or you could plan a hike, bike ride or game of tennis, where you can focus on enjoying an activity together rather than worrying about being tongue-tied or getting social ‘stage fright’. Plus you could bargain with yourself, for instance, make an agreement that you will go to a meetup for an hour, but can leave after that if you want. A time limit can make things feel a lot more manageable. However, you may well find that once you’re there, it feels a lot easier than you thought it would.

It’s worth remembering that, just like riding a bike, you never actually ‘lose’ your social skills. They are still there and you can always reconnect with them, even if you feel a little wobbly or rusty at first.

3 - Speak to your employer

If your social anxiety is related to returning to the workplace, then that’s completely understandable. The thought of leaving the safe haven of home to re-enter more challenging environments like open-plan offices can definitely be daunting.

The key is to talk about it. For instance, by scheduling a chat with your manager to explain how you are feeling. You could also aim to negotiate a staggered return to work, where you attend two or three days a week to build yourself up gradually. Or if the situation allows for it, you could even ask about moving towards permanent home working or flexible working. If none of these are options, then even the act of letting your employers know about your anxiety can open the doors for much better support at work.

4 - Question your assumptions

Can everybody really ‘tell’ when you are feeling anxious? Does everything you say have to be interesting or entertaining? Are you solely responsible for how well a meetup goes? Is an awkward silence really a disaster? Or if you say the wrong thing, is it actually the end of the world, or will everyone have forgotten about it the next day? And are you really the only person who ever says anything silly anyway?

A big part of social anxiety can be the assumptions that we make, for instance, that other people are more confident or self-assured than we are. That is why questioning our old beliefs and replacing them with new ones can really help with managing symptoms. This might include, ‘I don’t always have to be witty’, ‘My friends love me for who I am’, and ‘Other people might be feeling socially awkward too’.

In fact, as you begin to focus more on those around you — for instance, on listening to them and helping them to feel accepted — you might find that much of your own anxiety melts away. Quite often, the ‘secret’ of being more at ease in social situations is about getting out of your own head (and the stories that you are telling yourself) and turning your attention towards others.

5 - Try soothing activities before going out

If you find yourself feeling anxious in the lead up to social events, then it can be helpful to do some preparation beforehand. For instance, you could practice breathing exercises, listen to relaxing music or go for a walk or run.

You could also remind yourself of good times you’ve had with people or times when you’ve felt good about yourself. As you recall these memories, this can help bring about a more pleasant physical state, as well as focusing your mind away from unhelpful thoughts that could increase your anxiety.

6 - Find support from a therapist

Almost every type of therapeutic approach can help with anxiety — it just depends on the best fit for you. For instance, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help you to shift your mindset around socialising and identify unhelpful thinking patterns. Alternatively, EMDR or other body-focused psychotherapies can lead you gently back into any past traumas or upsetting events that might be the root cause of it.

If you’d like to take an even deeper dive into the self, then psychodynamic therapies can uncover any unconscious fears, beliefs and memories that might make socialising difficult. And finally, mindfulness therapy or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help you to learn how to observe your symptoms of anxiety and gradually learn to respond differently so they don’t feel as disturbing.

Whichever approach you choose, don’t forget that anxiety can offer an opportunity to explore parts of you that might be buried, hidden or ignored. In other words, it can be a powerful messenger.

It’s all about finding a balance that works for you

All of the above suggestions can help you to create a safe structure for socialising, one where you learn to listen to your feelings, care for yourself and talk to trusted individuals about what you’re experiencing.

In the wake of a very tough year (one that was highly anxiety inducing in itself), it is totally natural to feel nervous about throwing yourself into social activities again. In fact, there might have been a comfort in the social distancing bubble, as it offered protection and respite from the pressure of interacting with others.

If this is the case, then don’t feel that you have to suddenly abandon that ‘safe bubble’ overnight. Instead, aim to re-enter the world gently while gradually creating a nurturing social life that allows you to thrive. It’s all about finding a balance that works for you while opening yourself up to opportunities for growth, vulnerability and, of course, good times with good friends.

Maybe the overall goal could be to create a new safe bubble that is not an actual physical space like home. Instead, this one could simply be a deeper sense of safety and rootedness within yourself, one that will stay with you whether you are alone or in a group of friends.

Get support for social anxiety with an experienced, accredited MTA therapist. Browse and book a therapist online, plus find out about different therapy options.

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Burnout and the Pandemic: How to Complete the Stress Cycle.

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