Social Anxiety and Re-Engaging Society
As we progress through the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals are beginning to re-engage in society after months or even years of social isolation or limited social contact. As more people get vaccinated and infection rates slow down, the restriction guidelines become looser, and people begin to socialize again. Experiencing social anxiety and re-engaging in society after a pandemic is multi-faceted. It may be a completely new experience for some and for others it may have already been an ongoing issue that is currently impacting their daily functioning in a negative manner. Experiencing some social anxieties while re-engaging in society as the pandemic continues is normal, however it is important to be aware of when social anxiety symptoms require the help of a professional.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety can be described as an intense fear or worry of one or more social situations in which the person could experience possible scrutiny. The individual fears they will act in a way that makes their anxiety symptoms obvious and will be negatively evaluated. The social situations are avoided, or they are endured with a high level of anxiety. This fear is out of proportion to the actual threat posed in the situation and causes significant impairment in daily life for 6 months or more (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Some physical symptoms people may exhibit while in feared social situations include blushing, sweating, trembling, shaking, rapid heart rate, feeling as if your mind is going blank or like you are sick to your stomach, or finding it difficult to make eye contact, be around people you don’t know, or talk to people in social situations, even when you want to. Some other symptoms are a rigid body posture, speaking in an overly soft voice, and avoiding places where other people may be (National Institute of Mental Health, 2022).
How is it Treated?
Whether you are experiencing a clinical level of social anxiety or some variation of symptoms, the treatment is generally the same. In order to successfully treat social anxiety symptoms, you must learn to tolerate the anxiety of social situations by facing the situations and engaging with others in a strategic manner. As each social situation is faced little by little, over time they become more manageable to experience as you find ways to tolerate the anxiety that may arise. When social anxiety impacts how you live your daily life and you notice you are avoiding the things you love to do, it may be time to seek help from a professional. Cognitive behavior therapy that includes exposure to fear situations is a leading treatment for social anxiety. A trained therapist can help you progressively confront the situations you have been avoiding. Continuing to avoid the feared situations only reinforces the anxiety and the resulting isolation more often than not leads to depression.
Remember that some anxiety is normal, and it is not uncommon to experience it in a way that may be unfamiliar to you as you re-engage after limited social contact. As your body takes in all of the sensory information that it may have been restricted from, it can take some time and readjustment to comfortably socialize. Some are taken by surprise when they experience social anxiety symptoms in activities, they once held much confidence in. This is not uncommon as well and it is encouraged that you keep doing those activities even when the anxiety is present.
Some Tips for Navigating Re-Engagement in Society
Acknowledge, Accept, and Face the Challenge
The first thing to do is to acknowledge how you feel and investigate why. Ask yourself what do you fear or worry about? Accept your feelings, they are there to protect you but sometimes work harder than they should at helping you avoid danger. With social anxiety the fear is out of proportion to the actual event. Do not avoid the event. Avoiding these distressing situations only strengthens the anxiety and often leads to depression. It is best to find a way that works for you to tolerate the anxiety. In doing that, each situation becomes easier for your body and brain to manage, the anxiety often subsides or decreases, and the activities you once feared will become enjoyable or manageable again.
Have a Game Plan
This part is crucial. Having a game plan is part of setting you up for success in a stressful situation. Remember, you will need to adopt a mindset of welcoming these feared situations. You will need to know what works for you and what to do if you need support in a situation. It is equally important to know and respect your own boundaries. For example, if you would like to wear a mask to protect yourself from the COVID-19 virus, that is okay. However, if you are wearing a mask because you don’t want others to see your face or are embarrassed of how your faces looks or feels without the mask in social situations, you will want to question and push yourself to face your fears and the outcome.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Some cases may require the help of a trained professional to help you get back to your optimal functioning. Some signs that you may need more support are extreme avoidance, symptoms of depression, and not being able to carry out your daily functions or do the things you really want to do. Some research indicates that as the COVID`-19 restrictions loosen and people begin to socialize in-person, people are more likely report social anxiety symptoms. This is because those that struggle with social anxiety disorder are readjusting to the social environment as restrictions are loosened (Lim et al., 2022). Seek professional help when you feel your issues are no longer manageable by yourself.
Communicating in some way what you are experiencing will be very helpful. Almost everyone is readjusting in some way. You can communicate by reaching out to a family member or friend, journaling or writing daily/weekly reflections, or writing a blog.
Give Yourself Some Grace
Finally, allow yourself some time and space to adjust, readjust, and simply accept your experience including your social fears and strengths.
Lim, M., Qualter, P., Thurston, L., Eres, R., Hennessey, A., Holt-Lunstad, J., Lambert, G. (2022). A Global Longitudinal Study Examining Social Restrictions Severity on Loneliness, Social Anxiety, and Depression. Frontiers in Psychiatry, (13), Article 818310.