For many, this summer will be a time of long-overdue social interaction: Catching up with friends and family in-person, traveling, and/or attending crowded events like concerts and other live shows. But not everyone is so excited about this return to “normal life.” If you’ve been dreading leaving the cozy nest you’ve created at home — and felt safe in — over the last year and a half, you’re not alone, but mental health experts also say that there are a few things you can do to get over the hump and reduce feelings of social anxiety post-pandemic if you’re ready to move forward.
Just as some people struggled with the psychological effects of social distancing (feelings of isolation, strained relationships), going back to your pre-pandemic life can be just as much of a struggle — even of some of your previous concerns aren’t as much of a problem. The world just collectively experienced a severely impactful event, which was considered traumatic for a portion of the population. “At no other point in recent history have we all gone through something so dramatic where our lives shifted abruptly and unexpectedly and then ultimately continued for an extended period of time,” explains Dr. Lauren Cook, therapist, speaker, and coach. “This sense of powerlessness reverberated feelings of trauma for many.”
Some people decidedly had more to deal with during this time, so it’s understandable that not everyone will be coming out the other end the same way. “Depending on a person’s experiences in the pandemic, it certainly may be a traumatic event,” says Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart and Joy from Fear. “Some people’s lives have been barely affected by the pandemic. Others have been significantly impacted in one or more ways such as job loss, dramatic lifestyle changes, illness, death of a loved one, isolation, change in work routine, stressful childcare issues, mental health issues ranging from depression and addiction to suicidality, family dysfunction, and relationship trauma.”
For those in the latter of these categories, it may provide some sense of relief to know you’re not alone. As Dr. Manly explains, it’s important not to judge yourself if you’re dealing with the anxiety of going back to work, recovering from a financial blow, or have health concerns about being exposed. According to her, a simple first step to reducing this anxiety is acknowledging exactly where you are mentally and emotionally and what your needs and preferences are at the moment. “Once you are aware of what you require, you can then have clear, strong boundaries with others,” she says. “When we get into the habit of stating our needs clearly, worry about the future is naturally reduced because of the sense of self-control that comes by having solid boundaries.”
A next step could be to take a look at the various fears you’re having, and assess whether or not they’re actually realistic. “If your fears are realistic, take your time to move forward at a pace that feels right to you,” Dr. Manly advises. “If your fears are unrealistic — if your fears feel irrational and keep you stuck — it’s absolutely appropriate to take one baby step forward at a time to move through your fears.” So what exactly is a realistic fear versus an unrealistic one? The psychologist says an example of the former might be a concern about going to a large gathering or party where many people are likely not yet vaccinated. On the other hand, a concern about taking your mask off in a family member’s home when all people have been vaccinated is more unfounded.
So what might be a next step if you’re ready to move forward socially? First, Dr. Cook says to cut yourself some slack: Getting rid of these fears isn’t going to happen overnight, and that’s okay. “Essentially, we are out of ‘social shape’ right now and rebuilding these muscles is going to take some time,” she explains. “The good news is that it's like riding a bike and we fall back into our social skills faster than we think.” The therapist shares that one move to make that can help you get back into the social swing of things is gradually exposing yourself to the things that scare you. “Avoidance is not the answer and staying home usually only amplifies your fears,” she says. “Commit, show up, and sit with it — the anxiety will break more and more each time that you lean in.”
Of course, in some cases social anxiety can get to a level that requires the help of a professional to improve. How do you know if it’s time to seek help for your post-pandemic stress or fears? According to Dr. Manly, there are a few signs you should speak to a mental health expert ASAP. “If you are suffering from ongoing mental or physical health concerns such as sleeplessness, anxiety, stress, depression, significant changes to your eating habits, addiction, PTSD, or any level of suicidality, it’s extremely important to reach out for immediate professional help,” she says. There’s no shame in needing a little extra support, and it could be the key to reducing your dependency on isolation and reconnecting with loved ones who can offer you support, entertainment, and more fulfilled post-pandemic life.