As vaccination rates increase, infection rates slow, and safety restrictions loosen, a post-pandemic return to ‘normal’ is on the horizon. The thought of returning to school, the workplace, and social gatherings can be exciting—and anxiety-provoking. After over a year of adjusting to social distancing, many of us have gotten used to communicating from behind a screen, working or attending class from home, and limiting our face-to-face interactions. For those with social anxiety, not having to interact with others in person as much might have even felt like a relief. Either way, the pandemic may have shrunk your social comfort zone, and it’s understandable to feel nervous about jumping back into ‘normal socializing.’ There’s also a lot of uncertainty about what socializing will be like now—it’s hard to picture what ‘back to normal’ looks like when life isn’t quite returning to what it was before.
If you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. Social anxiety increased for a lot of people during the pandemic, and the American Psychological Association reported that about half of Americans feel uneasy thinking about returning to in-person interactions. Further, research has shown that being isolated can impact the way people socialize, making them feel more uncomfortable and anxious (Oluwafemi et al., 2012; Santini et al., 2020). Additionally, avoidance of social situations can lead to anxiety about future socializing (Bardeen, 2015; Rudaz et al., 2017). It makes sense that after 18 months of avoiding social interaction, re-entering society might be especially nerve-wracking, and a little awkwardness is to be expected when we’re re-engaging in ways we haven’t in a long time. It’s a collective experience; we’re all making this shift and trying to figure out what ‘normal’ is now.
Tips For Managing Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety:
- Take it slow. It’s okay to make this transition gradually. If you’ve been mainly texting/emailing with others, moving to phone or video calls could be a good intermediate step before jumping to face-to-face socializing. You could also identify a couple of activities to incorporate into your week that might help you get used to being around other people, like going to the grocery store or ordering at a coffee shop. For work, if switching from remote to in-person is a concern, consider going into the workplace one or two days a week at first if it’s an option for you.
- Pre-cope or cope ahead. The goal of coping ahead is to prepare for a potentially stressful or anxiety-provoking situation. This might look like employing some helpful coping skills the day before you return to the office, or in the morning before an evening social gathering. Coping ahead can also involve identifying strategies you could use to deal with potential future stressors.
- Practice self-compassion. This is a tough transition so give yourself some grace. Try to set realistic expectations, and have empathy for yourself if things are difficult at first.
- Reach out. Other people are likely experiencing similar worries – talking about it might normalize the experience. Another option would be to ask friends or family what it was like for them to go back to the office or start socializing with larger groups.
- Ask for help. If social anxiety is persisting, causing you significant dysfunction, or impairing your quality of life, it may be important to seek help from a mental health professional. If you are interested in seeking therapy in Baltimore, we’re here to help. Contact the CBT team at CBT Baltimore at 443-470-9815. We would love to speak with you.
Post-pandemic social anxiety can be challenging during this transition, but it’s not insurmountable. Have patience with yourself – you can do this!
American Psychological Association. (2021). Stress in America: One Year Later, A New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress
Bardeen, J. R. (2015). Short-term pain for long-term gain: the role of experiential avoidance in the relation between anxiety sensitivity and emotional distress. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 30, 113-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.12.013
Oluwafemi, F. A., Abdelbaki, R., Lai, J. C., Mora-Almanza, J. G., & Afolayan, E. M. (2021). A review of astronaut mental health in manned missions: Potential interventions for cognitive and mental health challenges. Life sciences in space research, 28, 26–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lssr.2020.12.002
Rudaz, M., Ledermann, T., Margraf, J., Becker, E. S., & Craske, M. G. (2017). The moderating role of avoidance behavior on anxiety over time: Is there a difference between social anxiety disorder and specific phobia?. PloS one, 12(7), e0180298. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180298
Santini, Z. I., Jose, P. E., York Cornwell, E., Koyanagi, A., Nielsen, L., Hinrichsen, C., . . . Koushede, V. (2020). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and symptoms of depression and anxiety among older Americans (NSHAP): A longitudinal mediation analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 5, e62-e70. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2468-2667(19)30230-0