The COVID-19 pandemic turned everyone’s social lives upside in early 2020. Lockdowns and social distancing requirements made people avoid each other. Socializing has felt strange and awkward ever since. Now that UK pandemic restrictions are lifting, albeit with some delays, it’s time to adjust to another new normal.
People with social anxiety may be especially sensitive to this transition, also known as reentry anxiety. During the pandemic, forced isolation gave them a break from others. But as society opens up again, isolation won’t be the norm anymore.
In a recent survey by the King’s College London and the University of Bristol, 14% of people in the UK are content living a more isolated lifestyle. This group felt happier meeting fewer people than they did before the pandemic. If you’ve lived with social anxiety before the pandemic, you may feel the same way.
Getting Back to Normal – What’s Your Perspective?
You may experience some anxiety as your community opens up again. This may happen even if you don’t usually feel anxious in social situations. Here’s a look at how you and others may approach the return to open socializing.
If You’ve Had Social Anxiety Before the Pandemic
If your social anxiety symptoms began before the pandemic, here’s what some of your habits may look like.
- You choose social interactions carefully. Most interactions feel stressful and leave you feeling drained.
- You try to avoid people as much as possible. But once in a while, you may run into a friend or need to speak to someone at work.
- You have mixed feelings about relationships. You may want connection with others, but avoid being social because it’s uncomfortable.
For you, the pandemic restrictions may have provided a sense of emotional safety. You naturally seek fewer social interactions, so your habits fit in well. Social avoidance became acceptable, even mandatory at times.
Regular socializing is just around the corner. As this transition gets closer, it may feel like someone turned the volume up on your emotions. You may continue social distancing and mask-wearing longer, simply for emotional comfort. Adjusting to more socializing after the pandemic may feel like a bigger leap than usual.
If Social Anxiety is Not Typical for You
You may not experience social anxiety symptoms often. Still, you might struggle with a return to a freshly reopened community.
When the pandemic began, social norms shifted. Gatherings weren’t allowed and even casual interactions were discouraged. Lockdowns created an association between health risks and social interaction. After living this way for over a year, the buzz of your favorite social activities can seem strange and unfamiliar at first.
Even when your local area becomes safe again, mental habits from the pandemic may be a little tough to shake. Getting back to normal sounded easy and natural in early 2020. But after this long, many people feel wary of stepping back into their social life. It may take time to get adjusted as each new social situation arises.
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Resuming Social Activity – What Now?
How much did you rely on the pandemic for isolation? Returning to ‘normal’ may trigger feelings of both excitement and uncertainty. Social expectations are about to change again.
This shift toward free socialization can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable. You may sense pressure from others to get together long before you’re ready. Or you may find another reason to keep your distance. This transition can make you feel stuck between your emotions and the pace of your community. Even if you want to become more socially active, you may not be sure how to move forward.
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Tips for Adapting to Social Life & Managing Re-entry Anxiety
Now that restrictions will be lifted soon, the idea of socializing again may make you nervous. You may still choose to isolate and avoid others, especially if you experienced social anxiety before the pandemic. But when you do step out, try some of the following methods to manage your anxiety symptoms.
Calm your body with breathing exercises
Think about how quick and shallow your breathing becomes when you feel anxious. Your heart beats faster and your whole body feels on edge. With practice, you can use your breath to reverse this overstimulation. Breathing exercises can calm your mind and body in minutes wherever you are.
Here’s an exercise to try:
- Sit or stand with good posture before you begin.
- Keep your shoulders and chest as still as possible. Only let your belly move in and out as you breathe.
- Start by inhaling slowly through your nose for four counts, then hold your breath for two counts. Exhale for four counts, then wait a few moments before starting the exercise again.
- Repeat several times or until you notice your body feeling relaxed.
- Repeat this daily to help your body respond more quickly over time.
Take it slow and start small
Everyone has different social comfort levels, and there’s no rush to become more active. We’ve all spent many months hearing about how unsafe it was to be around others. These thoughts may linger, even when your local health conditions have improved. It takes time to let go of these mental habits.
Start small by meeting with one or two people in a familiar setting. With each positive experience, your mindset can shift a little. You can gradually warm up to these places and activities again.
If you need or want to join a larger event, consider staying toward the back or edge of the group. Create an exit plan if you feel like you need to leave early.
Communicate Your Feelings
It may be tempting to keep your feelings bottled up when friends or family ask you to meet. It may lead to engaging in social interactions when you don’t feel ready yet, which can only make your re-entry anxiety worse. In line with taking the re-entry slow and starting small it’s important to be honest with others around you and express how you feel.
Try to be more open with the people around you about your feelings on the current changes. Let your friends and family know about how you are doing and feel free to say no to invitations when they feel too much! You can use a simple, yet assertive sentence like this one:
“I really appreciate you thinking of me, but I just don’t have the energy to be around people right now!”
Ask for Information
If you’re experiencing re-entry anxiety, not knowing how many people will be at a social gathering, where exactly it will take place, and how long will it last can create even more uncertainty around being social, and uncertainty is anxiety’s best friend! The antidote? To ask for what you want to know and then decide what to do. Knowledge is power!
Before going to a social gathering, why not asking for some info? For example you could ask about whether the social event (a dinner out or a movie with some friends) has a game-plan that works with your level of comfort.
Be gentle and compassionate to yourself
With all the changes from the pandemic, your social skills may feel rusty. Everything may feel extra awkward for a while. But remember that millions of people are making adjustments just like you are. You are not alone.
Humans feel emotionally safe when they belong and feel accepted. The pandemic has disrupted the way we usually connect with each other to get that feeling of safety. Social norms swung in one direction as the pandemic developed. Now they’re swinging back again. Uncertainty is a reasonable response right now, so be kind to yourself as you step forward.
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Getting Back to Normal – Managing Social Anxiety Symptoms
As you come out of pandemic lockdowns, you may feel especially uneasy about being social again. Things are getting back to normal in the UK after over a year of restrictions. Whether you’ve felt socially anxious before or it’s a new struggle, the tips discussed above can help you through the process.
If you try these approaches and still feel anxious, consider speaking with a therapist. At Therapy Central, we have therapists who have experience working with people coping with social anxiety. They can provide guidance and support as you adjust to the changes around you. Contact us for a free 15 min consultation today to get started with social anxiety treatment in London or Online