Overcoming Social Anxiety as You Emerge from COVID-19 Quarantine

Feeling excited about rejoining your communities after more than a year of quarantine, but also a little scared? Are you racing to fill up your social calendar, yet somehow exhausted by tiny interactions?  No need to worry. You’re not alone.

Isolation is hard on humans

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented, shared tragedy to the global community. Perhaps one of the hardest parts? We’ve had to go through much of it alone.

Humans are wired for connection. Our ancestors evolved in small groups of people who relied on social cooperation for survival. Feeling a sense of belonging is still essential today for us to feel safe and thrive. While we still don’t know the lasting impact of COVID-19 imposed quarantines, recent and ongoing research hints at a dramatic influence on people’s physical and mental health, economic circumstances, and their social support networks. 

As quarantines lift, many of us have been on the edge of our seats waiting, to be able to hug our friends, eat at restaurants, go to movies and concerts, and attend those weddings and reunions we missed last year. So, with COVID cases dropping, vaccinations increasing, and CDC guidelines relaxing, why are some of us hesitant to jump off the high dive into the deep end of our social lives?

I’m excited to socialize, but why does it feel so hard?

Simply put, we are out of practice. Most people don’t think of socializing as a skill, but it is similar to playing the piano or speaking a language. If you don’t keep it up, you get rusty and forget how to do it. What’s more, when we avoid things that make us anxious, they tend to make us even more anxious. Procrastinating on things like paying the bills or going to the dentist makes them a bigger deal in our minds so when we eventually do them, they cause even more stress. Since socializing is a skill and usually involves at least some degree of anxiety, not doing it for a while can have consequences. 

As we go back out, socializing might feel weird. 

The longer we go without having to interact in person with others, the less familiar it feels, and we become naturally wary. Prehistoric humans didn’t live long if they approached an unknown situation with reckless abandon. When we’re presented with new or unfamiliar situations, our brains are Grade A threat detectors. Socially, this means we look out for any hint of awkwardness or embarrassment that might lead us to be judged or criticized. The result is we’re more likely to over-estimate how awkward or embarrassed we are acting. 

Social anxiety makes us suspicious.

For instance, studies have shown that when people are put into stressful social situations, like having to give a speech unexpectedly, people high in social anxiety are more likely to judge neutral faces or those without a clear expression as hostile or threatening. Social anxiety tricks you into believing that everyone is judging you way more than they actually are. Add in the fact that getting close to people in the last year actually has carried risk of catching COVID-19, and it’s no wonder our threat detectors are in need of some recalibration. 

Fortunately, psychology can offer some guidance:

1. Set manageable goals and stick to them

It’s good to put yourself out there and gradually re-introduce social events into your life. Start from where you are, not where you were before COVID happened. Think about small goals you can make to begin to see other people, attend group gatherings, or go out in public. It’s good to push yourself a little, but if you expect too much out of yourself you are more likely to avoid it. 

Remember that avoidance makes things harder.

Avoidance is central to maintaining social anxiety. That is, people who are really socially anxious get that way through a long process of avoiding more and more social events. 

Get back into the swing of things by regularly setting goals that push you just a little outside your comfort zone. 

Gently push yourself to just outside of your comfort zone until you reach a level of socializing that you are happy with. There is no right or wrong here: while most of us need some degree of connection and interaction with others, we all have individual differences in our social needs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed one where to start, we suggest picking a shared activity with others, like a movie or game, to give the interaction a little structure and take some of the conversational heat off.

Advice for setting social goals: Take a few minutes to think about some social events that you wish you were able to do without any anxiety. See if you can challenge yourself to identify 1-2 steps you can take toward one of these over the next two weeks.

2. Be less of a coach and more of a friend.

When our interactions don’t go as planned, it can be tempting to assume the role of the coach. We launch into a post-play analysis to find out just where things went off the rails. Should I have said that? I didn’t laugh enough at that joke. What did they think when I pitched that idea? Like any coach after losing a game, our minds naturally work to point out our mistakes so we’re less likely to repeat them. Yet, with stressful social situations, this type of post-game analysis appears to be more hurtful than helpful. 

Criticism makes a hard situation harder.

People who endorse repeatedly criticizing themselves following social interactions report more anxiety about future social situations and less openness to talking with other people the next day. When we become overly focused on our mistakes or shortcomings, we pay more attention to them in following interactions, contributing to anxiety about future events. So being self-critical after a certain point doesn’t actually pay off.

Instead, try on the role of a friend. 

When we practice self-compassion, the process of responding to ourselves as we would to a friend or loved one, we are more willing to engage socially and are less anxious during stressful social encounters like giving a speech or presentation. Although it may sound counterintuitive, when you let go of correcting your mistakes and practice responding kindly in the moment, you’re more likely to be spontaneous and have richer social interactions. Go easy on yourself- you just survived a once-in-a-century pandemic after all!

Practice for treating yourself as a friend: Think about the advice you’d give a friend if they tell you that they are hesitant to go back to attending social events. Write it down or speak it out loud, then see if you can apply that same advice to yourself.

3. Name it and connect.

When we’re feeling awkward or anxious, many of us have the urge to hide that from others –  it’s tempting to look like we have it all together. Yet, when our attention is directed at hiding how anxious we feel, we actually behave in ways that make it harder to connect. Ever talk with someone who is fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, crossing their arms, hiding their face, or giving one-word answers? How interested and present did you feel they were with you?

Hiding our anxiety usually backfires. 

Humans are good lie detectors and when we feel someone is hiding something, we tend to trust them less. In contrast, when we share honestly in conversation, people like us and want to spend more time with us. What’s more, when we show physical signs of embarrassment, like blushing, research shows that others trust us more, likely because it demonstrates we care about what people think.

Instead of hiding your anxiety, simply name it.

No one has it all together. Not only does this remove the elephant in the room, but you may even give your conversation partner permission to share their own experience and connect with you.

How to name it: If you feel anxious at a social event, share that with someone there. You can use humor or just be honest about how it feels weird to be out in public again. Once it’s acknowledged, then move on with the event without needing to hide that you feel awkward or anxious.

The take home: Take your time and be patient

Re-learning to interact might be more like a marathon than a sprint. Remind yourself it is normal to have more difficulty socializing after spending over a year in isolation. The best thing that you can do is to go out and practice, remembering to be easy on yourself along the way. Give yourself credit for the times you do make it out. And consider sharing with others- you may make someone else feel relieved to hear that they are not the only one struggling. 

Authors: Kati Lear, Ph.D. & Brian Pilecki, Ph.D., & Jason Luoma, Ph.D.

Author: Kati Lear, Ph.D.

Kati Lear, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, associate investigator, and continuing education coordinator at Portland Psychotherapy. Kati specializes in working with adults struggling with high levels of self-criticism and shame. Some of her specialty areas include social anxiety disorder, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

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