Daily life during the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging in so many ways, but especially when it comes to the lack of social interactions with family, friends, colleagues and even passersby. But with the COVID vaccine available to all adults and mask mandates lifting across the country, there's light at the end of the tunnel — which can be both exciting and nerve-wracking.
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"It is normal to experience some level of discomfort transitioning out of the pandemic," notes Sahar Esfahani, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of the Maryland CBT Center, a private practice specializing in anxiety disorders and trauma in Bethesda, Maryland. "The opportunity to avoid in-person social interactions may have provided a false sense of comfort for those with social anxiety. However, the longer one avoids [these interactions], the harder it can be to reengage socially."
Although it might take time to feel comfortable with these in-person interactions, time will be a major player in aiding the process. In the interim, here are some expert-approved tips for how to cope with social anxiety as we slowly get back to a version of pre-pandemic normal.
1. Recognize Your Triggers
Before you say yes to a friend's birthday party or summer barbecue, take time to think about what specific situations activate your fears or feelings of worry or distress, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
"Understanding your own personal triggers empowers resiliency, self-competence and self-esteem," she says. "Facing fears empowers ownership and allows for the person experiencing anxiety to have control over the anxiety."
Ask yourself: What situations do you recall feeling the most uncomfortable? And try to figure out why you felt that way. Recognizing these triggers will help you better prepare for how to cope when you come across them in the future, Mendez says.
2. Ease Back into Things Gradually
The process of returning to "normal" life will likely take months, if not years, Esfahani says. She recommends first accepting that a life post-pandemic is inevitable, so you can then commit to a game plan to help you be prepared.
"An effective and evidence-based approach to reducing fear regarding social situations is called gradual exposure therapy, which means gradually confronting one's fears over time," she says.
To start, she suggests making a list of situations, people or things that trigger your social anxiety and then ranking them in order of least to most anxiety-provoking.
"Start with the lower items on your list and commit to doing them week by week," she says. "For example, when it comes to returning to work, you might plan a visit to the office and stay for one to two hours to reorient yourself to the commute and the office space, and the next time you may spend several more hours there and so on and so forth."
3. Allow for Feelings of Discomfort
It's very likely that you may feel worry, discomfort, embarrassment or fear upon exposing yourself to social situations, but these negative emotions are not a sign that you are doing something wrong, Esfahani says.
"After spending close to a year being asked to avoid social interactions — the very thing that reinforces anxiety and fear — it is only natural to feel uncomfortable returning to life post-pandemic. However, to unlearn this, we need to trust the science, and retrain our bodies and brains to stop avoiding social situations," she says. "If you allow for discomfort rather than running away from it, your anxiety will dissipate overtime."
She recommends engaging in compassionate self-talk. "Telling yourself, 'This is uncomfortable, and I can tolerate it,' or 'Just because this feels scary doesn't mean something bad will happen,' can be effective," she says. "Another strategy is to take a few deep breaths before getting ready to socialize or be with new people again."
4. Try Meditation
Mindfulness meditation has a slew of benefits, including stress relief, lower blood pressure, improved sleep and reduced anxiety, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. In fact, one May 2013 study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found lower levels of anxiety in people who did just four days of meditation.
"Mindfulness helps us take charge of our thoughts, especially unwanted negative thoughts that paralyze functioning, and reinforces here and now focuses," explains Mendez. "A mindfulness practice allows for living in the present rather than regretting the past, anticipating failure in the present or worrying about the future."
To practice mindfulness, she recommends simply finding a quiet, calm place to sit still for a few moments each day, without distraction, to focus your thoughts on a central topic, be it peace, relaxation or happiness.
5. Be Open With Friends and Family
Anxiety can be so isolating, and social anxiety even more so, but you should never have to go through the angst of it alone.
Stephanie Korpal, MEd, therapist and owner of Marble Wellness in St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, encourages her patients to reach out to friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers or anyone you feel comfortable talking to in order to share your experiences — especially those who have also confided in you that they too suffer from some form of anxiety.
"Having someone else who shares some of the same outlook on socializing and who can give you some strategies or helpful tips is crucial," she says.
6. Practice Self-Care
Facing your social anxiety by reengaging in life can be tiring, so be kind to yourself along the way and care for your mental, physical and emotional health.
Esfahani recommends giving yourself permission to pace yourself by taking small, manageable steps.
"Practice self-care by being alone in between these moments to recharge," she says. "Give yourself permission to take an afternoon off and be by yourself and engage in an activity that feels good, is healthy and is enjoyable." (A hike in the woods, perhaps?)
7. Seek Help From a Mental Health Professional
You don't have to work through your social anxiety alone. In fact, seeking counseling support to work through your feelings can be incredibly beneficial and may leave you with lifelong tools you can utilize to cope with your condition.
"Having a therapist who is on your side and wants to see you thrive can be a critically important way to overcome social anxiety anytime, but especially in post-pandemic life," says Korpal. "Not only can a mental health professional give you an array of tools that work for you, but they can also keep you accountable in the use of those tools."
8. Join a Support Group
If you are really struggling, Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, clinical psychologist who specializes in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and founder of The Mindful Mommy, recommends joining a support group.
"Connecting with other people in a safe and supportive environment can help you ease into social interactions and gives you an opportunity to connect with other people struggling with similar experiences and allows you to practice your social skills," she says.
For help finding a support group, Guarnotta recommends contacting a local mental health organization or asking your doctor or health care provider for a referral.
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