At the start of COVID more than two years ago, our accustomed way of life changed dramatically for many of us – we were told to stay home and physically distance ourselves from others to help reduce COVID transmission.
Many of us felt comfortable with these new arrangements and took the chance to practice more self-care, find new hobbies and interests, and take advantage of no travel time to and from work.
Fast forward to now – as we emerge back into our old roles and connect with society again – there is the assumed expectation that we will ‘show face’ back in the office and at social gatherings. The idea of this socialising is not a welcome relief for some of us. In fact, a lot of people are feeling anxiety and distress as they re-enter society after two years of social distancing precautions. If this is you, you are not alone.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety can be felt in a number of ways. These include:
- Feeling severe discomfort in social situations.
- Choosing to avoid social occasions.
- Feeling judged or embarrassed.
- Physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and feeling flushed in social situations.
6 Ways you can cope with social anxiety as you re-enter society
Firstly, if you’re experiencing some anxiety in social situations, know that this is completely natural.
The strategies you can use for dealing with social anxiety are the same whether you’re experiencing it for the first time, or it’s a familiar feeling that you’ve managed to avoid in recent times.
1. Accept the anxiety and face what the fear is.
Don’t try to ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t bother you.
Try and think through the darkness of the fear you are having and figure out what might be causing you concern. Naming the fear can help externalise it and allow it to become separate from who you are. It also allows you to see it from a more logical perspective and allow for the possibility of finding new ways to deal with it.
2. Have a game plan.
With this clarity, you can think about a game plan to address the issue.
This might be as simple as addressing the issue with others and actually admitting it feels strange to be back around people again and to check in on how others are feeling. There’s a good chance that other people might be feeling the same, and there’s great comfort in this shared experience.
You might also like to have a few general topics you want to take to talk about (like books, movies or holidays) at the forefront of your mind. These can act as an ice breaker for you as you get into the swing of engaging with people again and feel more comfortable.
3. Think of social outings as experiments.
Practice these experiments in bite-sized chunks and know that they don’t have to be perfect.
You will most likely feel more comfortable after each one.
In the comfort of your home afterwards, you can even fact-check some of these fears and see if the feared outcome actually happened? Was it as bad as you expected?
4. Reflect and rank.
Write a list of the situations you find challenging, before ranking them in order of least to most confronting. Then start with the least confronting and work on that. You want to flex this muscle gently so go easy on yourself.
5. Consider mindful practices and take steps to stay in the moment.
If you notice your mind starting to race or feel like everyone is looking at or judging you, make the effort to refocus.
One of the hardest parts of social phobia is imagining what other people are thinking or feeling about you. This can lead to the sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive, which causes things like blushing, sweating or feeling panicked. If you notice that beginning in a social setting, try to focus on the here and now, which might mean paying close attention to what people are wearing or focusing on a particular object – whatever works to get out of your own head.
6. Be patient.
Try and be both hopeful and self-compassionate.
Readjusting to new situations uses quite a lot of mental energy, so you can expect to feel a little bit exhausted during this process. Try and take it slow but be sure and back yourself – you’ll be surprised as to how well you can engage again with people and connections and new situations giving yourself self-compassion and confidence.
When might it be time to seek help?
If your anxiety around socialising and being around people feels so crippling you are actively avoiding situations that you would really like to be participating in, that’s a sign that you might need some support. An obvious sign would be that you are in extreme discomfort despite trying to integrate and show up in these situations or just find yourself completely stuck in your head at these times.
How therapy can help
A good therapist might look at supporting you to examine some of your thoughts about yourself in social situations, increase your awareness of the behaviours you engage in to reduce discomfort in social situations, and arm you with a new set of insights, resolutions and tools to start participating in social activities – even ones that previously caused you anxiety.
Challenging your unhelpful and distorted thoughts around these anxieties can be enormously helpful in unravelling the strings of worry and pulling us out of the rabbit holes we can fall into that hold us back.
Mindfulness techniques for social anxiety
Much of social anxiety involves worry about the future, so practising mindfulness can help you feel more acceptance of your state of mind.
These practices allow you to experience the fears or anxiety of social occasions, yet not be so distraught and disturbed by them. It is about the practice of noticing and moving on from it.
You can start by listening to one, or all, of our free online meditations here.