Social anxiety is something that's hard to explain unless you've experienced it yourself. Many of us who suffer from social anxiety often have a challenging time either being around people we don't know, or struggle with being caught up in large crowds and unfamiliar spaces. Social anxiety can present itself in many ways and might be experienced differently from person to person. Some people experience symptoms similar to a panic attack, where their chest becomes tight, their breathing becomes rapid and shallow, or perhaps they feel like the walls are closing in around them and they cannot escape. Others may experience nausea or other GI symptoms, sweating, or irritability and intense fear. This is by no means an exhaustive list of symptoms, but I'm sure you can see how social anxiety could be a downright debilitating problem for the person trying to handle it.
Interestingly enough, I've heard several people say recently that they feel apprehensive (and even anxious) about returning to social situations as we emerge from this pandemic, even if they didn't typically suffer from social anxiety beforehand. If this is you, I want to validate your feelings of apprehension by reminding you that our entire society was shut down due to a virus that we didn't know how to fight. This past year has been the stuff of movies — except we actually lived it. Give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed by that reality if need be. I know it feels like we've been cooped up forever (a year is a long time); also keep in mind that a year also isn't very long for a person in terms of processing. You wouldn't expect someone to just "get over it" if their parent died a year ago. Understand that each of us has experienced some sort of major loss over this past year and grieving said loss will take some time.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, for the past year, the basic details we understood were critical towards our survival were to:
wear a mask
stay physically distanced from people
wash our hands often
Regardless of how well you've been able to compartmentalize the happenings of 2020 and the first half of 2021, the truth remains that rejoining society means to resume doing those very things you just spent a whole year avoiding (hopefully). It's completely appropriate and understandable to struggle with coming back to society as we know it — especially with mask mandates being lifted, stores and restaurants operating near full capacity and vaccines becoming more widely available. My partner and I are both fully vaccinated and still wear our masks, but we've both experienced the strange feelings of being allowed to take those masks off at the local supermarket and considering if we even wanted to (All the people! Ahh!). I hope that if you have felt any of these emotions, you know that you're not alone. To help myself (and you!) prepare to rejoin society again after the pandemic, I've put together a list of 5 different ways to help manage social anxiety as we ease back in.
Number 1: Start Small
This might be obvious, but sometimes the most obvious things evade us! If you're feeling concerned about being out in public again, perhaps your first outing shouldn't be to an amusement park or a concert. Instead, maybe have a small dinner with 1 or 2 friends that you trust, either at your house or at a local restaurant where you feel safe eating. You don't have to immediately jump into a rave (unless you want to) — do this at your own pace.
Number 2: Plan Accordingly
Perhaps another no-brainer, but I cannot emphasize enough how stressful it can be if you're planning to have a quick lunch with friends, only for that outing to quickly turn into a shopping trip with multiple stops you didn't expect. Even in normal everyday circumstances (read: not during a pandemic), I really don't do well with surprise trips or unexpected stops — just ask my partner. Even if it's one extra stop, sometimes that's enough to spin me into a panic attack. Add a little bit of pandemic doom to the mix and congratulations, we're ready for a meltdown! This can be prevented, however, if there's a concrete plan in place. Maybe volunteer to make said plans and text your friends the details. I also recommend that you have your own transportation to and from your destination in case the group decides that it wants to complete more activities that day. This way, you'll always feel in control of what you're participating in, but can ease back into the social circle on your own terms. Please note that to be in control of your own schedule doesn't require you to be controlling, as there are so many ways to communicate your needs to your friends without being rude.
I know that in the moment, if you're struggling with anxiety, it's easy to come off as snappy because you're trying to hold it together. This is where it helps to have a plan of what to say already mapped out. Something as simple as "I'm sorry, I can only do lunch today — but maybe we can shop next weekend?" or even something more direct, like "I really wish I could, but I'm feeling anxious and need to head home now." Making a plan helps to keep you safe and, if you explain it this way, your friends are more likely to be cool with you heading out. If you're struggling to properly communicate with your friends in person after only texting or using technology for so long, I've written another article with some tips on how to make those meaningful connections again after the pandemic. You can find it here.
Number 3: Opt for Outdoor vs. Indoor Activities
Some of us may have been doing this already, but another easy way to take baby steps back into our social circles is to hold outdoor activities. Dinner party? Take it to your back patio. Movie night? Hang a sheet up and use a projector (PortoProjector makes a cute HDMI Mini Projector for $67!). Book club? Set up at a table in the local park. There are plenty of ways to move some of your indoor activities outside if you think outside the box a little.
Number 4: Practice Mindfulness/Grounding Techniques
If you're not used to experiencing anxiety, you may not be familiar with any techniques or tools that can help you feel calm in the middle of an attack. I want to make it clear that I am not a therapist and these techniques I'm sharing should not be construed as diagnostic tools or medical advice. Any questions or concerns that you have should be discussed directly with your doctor or therapist. For help finding a therapist near you in your price range, check out Open Path Collective or BetterHelp. In my personal experience, however, these techniques have helped when I've experienced social anxiety or panic attacks in public. One of my favorite tools is the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique (via Therapy Aid LLC) where I ask myself the following prompts:
What are 5 things I can see right now? These can be small details, like the paint color on the ceiling, a light fixture, a plant outside, etc.
What are 4 things I can feel right now? These can be the feeling of the wind on my skin, the chair against my legs, or even an object that I pick up and hold.
What are 3 things I can hear right now? These can be the sound of traffic driving by, the air conditioning unit, or maybe even the sound of my own breath.
What are 2 things I can smell right now? This one might be harder to accomplish — but maybe you can find an object that usually has a distinct scent, like a nearby candle or hand soap, and try to imagine what it smells like.
What is 1 thing I can taste right now? This could be some food that I have on hand, maybe a peppermint, or perhaps even some water.
Take your time with each of these prompts and don't rush through them, as their purpose is to bring you back into recognizing your senses in your own body. They can often help you to regain a sense of calm and control of yourself within your surroundings. I find that this technique, coupled with 5 slow and deep breaths before and after, helps me tremendously. If these techniques interest you or if you have questions about other steps you can take, I recommend you speak with your doctor or therapist about creating a plan that works for you.
Number 5: Have an Exit Buddy
I talked earlier about making a plan for your day so that you'll feel in control of your involvement in social activities. An additional safeguard for you might be to tell a close friend about your social anxiety concerns and ask if they'd be willing to help you if you need an out. This can be someone who also struggles from social anxiety, or it could be a friend who you know won't have those same struggles and can be available to lend support. Whatever route you choose, be sure to set a plan for your social activity and have a clear signal for when you need to leave. This can be more direct if you'd like, such as simply saying to your friend "I'm not feeling well, it's time to go." Or, if you're concerned about your ability to verbalize something like that in the moment, you can pick a safe word for use in such an occasion.
One example of this could be agreeing to text the word "blueberries" (or use it in a sentence) when you need to go home. Make sure there's no miscommunication with your exit buddy about the plan and also ensure that you don't choose a word that could be confusing if used in this context. For instance, if you're headed to a beach themed pool party, it's probably best to avoid using safe words like 'pool,' 'swim' or 'beach.' After all, who knows how often you might end up using those words in a normal sentence while gathered there? This strategy can work out great if you plan it well! Sometimes, the safety that I feel just knowing someone there has my back is enough to get me through a whole event with no problems.
None of these 5 things are a fix-all for social anxiety, but I've found comfort and support in them for myself and I hope that after reading these tips, you feel more confident about easing your way back into your post-pandemic social circles, too. Please remember to be gentle with yourself and know that there's no right or wrong way to feel about any of this, and that you're not alone. We are all trying our best to figure out how to be normal again and many of us might have to re-create what "normal" means. It's a big undertaking and no one expects for you to have it perfected by tomorrow. Before going on any outings or planning any social gatherings, please check with your local authorities for safety guidelines in your area regarding social distancing, vaccinations and mask wearing. Again, if you need help finding a therapist in your area that fits your budget and can help you with this transition, please check out Open Path Collective and BetterHelp. If any of these tips have been helpful for you, I'd love to hear about your experience! Be brave and have fun!
- Carly (@cgreenbartlett)