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Social Anxiety
Illustration Callum Abbott

How to deal with social anxiety as the world comes out of lockdown

Worried about small talk, party patter, or office chit-chat? Psychologists and psychotherapists explain how to navigate our re-introduction to social interaction

TextSara RadinIllustrationCallum Abbott

Lockdown and Covid-19 put our social lives on hold in a way we’ve never experienced before. Many of us, like myself, were isolated and alone for months on end, with only Netflix and banana bread for company. It’s no wonder that time spent away from groups and crowds of people has caused our social muscles to atrophy a little, especially for those who might struggle with social anxiety or be introverted, says psychologist Dr. Juli Fraga, Psy.D. “As a result, many people are experiencing what psychologists call ‘re-entry’ anxiety as the world opens up.”

According to Fraga, the mere “stimulation” of being back in the world can be fatiguing and overwhelming. This can make small talk with co-workers, neighbours, and friends feel awkward or even like a chore. But, as Fraga says, all of these experiences and feelings are not uncommon. Dazed speaks to experts in psychology about how the pandemic has affected our social lives, and how best to navigate our re-entry.

How has the pandemic impacted our social lives and social skills?

“COVID-19 has created severe isolation from people connecting with others physically and oftentimes mentally as well, which has been difficult,” explains psychotherapist Patrice N. Douglas, Psy.D., LMFT. For some, she says, being by themselves allowed them to feel comfortable and reduced their social anxiety, but for others, the lack of interaction has caused depression. As people adjust to a new level of interactivity, she says, this has led to an increase in some people’s social anxiety.

The pandemic has also impacted our relationships, leading to a spate of romantic and friend break-ups (as well as the opposite). “Some relationships ended because they were environmental; with the environment gone the connection wasn’t the same,” says Douglas. “Others ended because they individuals were stuck under the same roof and didn’t have the escape environments they once had and realised they were no longer a match.” 

Douglas adds that over the pandemic sometimes we’ve assumed that loved ones don’t care about us as they’re not checking in on us, but this was most likely due to them struggling with depression as well, causing those relationships to deteriorate.

What impact has it had on our social anxiety?

“Now that we may look different (weight gain, body changes), feel different (increase in mental health disorders), and view the world differently, we aren’t sure how to return to normal,” says Douglas. “COVID-19 has allow many of us to hide our insecurities and only show what we wanted to, but engaging more with others allows them to see the things we haven’t had to share in over a year, which can cause negative thinking patterns of disapproval from others which is tied to social anxiety.” Also, she explains, social environments that could be harmful emotionally, such as work or school, have been removed temporarily but are now set to return.

For many people living with social anxiety, avoidance is their “BFF”, Fraga says. If we avoid anxiety, it dissipates at least temporarily. “So, with the pandemic, social anxiety may have disappeared for many people.” However, according to her, avoidance strategies often create a dependence on the avoidant behaviour which only makes anxiety grow stronger in the long run. “As a result, getting back out in the world (especially for the socially anxious) might feel like the first day of school, or going on a date.”

How can you manage your social anxiety while starting to go back to ‘normal’?

Fraga’s biggest suggestion is to go gentle and take it slow. “Don't avoid the world, but don’t force yourself to jump in, either.” Start by meeting up with one or two people you really trust and keep the interaction brief. 

Don’t put too much stress on getting back out there in full force, says Douglas. “Try setting up small gatherings with a specific time frame to allow yourself to adjust to being around others for a specific amount of time,” she recommends. Scheduling phone sessions with friends or family can also help you get back to communicating and becoming familiar with them before your outing.    

When feeling exhausted, take naps and reduce the amount of time spent on social media. “Sometimes we live our lives looking at other people’s social media, not allowing ourselves to live through our own lens,” says Douglas. She also recommends spending time outside by yourself to get used to outdoor activities before hanging out with others.

“We’ve all been through the ringer this past year and a half. Treat yourself with kindness and try to quiet that inner critic that can haunt us all” – Dr. Juli Fraga, psychologist

During this time of transition, give yourself grace, practice self-affirmations to help build confidence, and harness self-compassion. “We've all been through the ringer this past year and a half,” says Fraga. “Treat yourself with kindness and try to quiet that inner critic that can haunt us all.” For example, you might tell your inner critic, ‘Please stop lying to me’, or ‘I hear you but I’m not taking what you say to heart.’ Or you might tell yourself: ‘I recognise this is a difficult moment right now and that’s ok. This feeling will pass.’ The more we recognise our pain, Fraga says, the less likely it turns into further suffering. 

What do you do if you want to finally see your friends and be social, but you’re also exhausted and anxious?

If you’re close with them, Fraga says, let them know how you feel. “The loneliness that accompanies anxiety can be exhausting and make self-critical beliefs take off.” It can therefore be beneficial to allow other people to help you come up with a doable solution. “If you’re in therapy or attending a support group, ask your counselor or therapist for guidance,” she says. “And give yourself permission to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now.’”