For more than a year, we've been avoiding most social situations to stay safe from the coronavirus. But with the arrival of vaccines comes the prospect of getting back to our normal social routines, from family gatherings to chatting by the water cooler and going to happy hour.
While many people are jazzed to jump back into the social scene, others may find themselves overwhelmed by the thought of pre-pandemic-type socializing.
If that's not true for you, it may be the case for someone you know. After all, social anxiety is the second most common anxiety disorder, affecting about 15 million American adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Here, mental health experts explain how to support your friends and family if they're struggling in social situations right now.
1. Normalize Their Feelings
Reinforce the idea that it's perfectly natural, and OK, to feel extra anxiety as we re-enter social situations after largely avoiding them during the pandemic, says Dave Carbonell, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
And reassure your loved one that you'll be present to help them feel supported while they work through it, Carbonell says.
Similarly, you can also help normalize the need to seek professional help, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and professor at Columbia University.
This past year was challenging for everyone. And it may have overwhelmed our usual coping mechanisms. Let your friend or family member know that seeing a therapist can be a helpful way to manage all these anxious feelings.
But don't push the subject. "Everyone feels differently about dealing with anxiety, so it is impossible to know how someone may react," Hafeez says. "So, be patient and respect your friend's boundaries."
2. Ask How You Can Help
"Rather than telling someone to move past feelings of anxiety or pushing them into a situation, asking how you can help is the right way to assist," Hafeez says.
If you're together in a social situation, validate your friend for showing up by saying something like "I think it's great you're willing to do this," Carbonell says. Then ask, "How can I be helpful to you while you're feeling anxious?"
Don't couch your question in terms of comfort (i.e., how can I make you feel comfortable?). "Doing what's most comfortable would probably be not going at all or leaving right away," Carbonell says.
In other words, you simply want to acknowledge that there will be discomfort and lend your support to help them manage — not avoid — the feelings.
3. Help Them Find Ways to Engage
"If your friend is at all open to this idea, help them find ways to engage in the social occasion," Carbonell says. Again, don't put the emphasis on comfort, but on active engagement.
For example, if making chitchat with someone at a party elevates your loved one's anxiety, help support them in this action. "That will be more productive than helping them avoid contact with others," Carbonell says.
And while you should always encourage and praise whatever active engagement your friend or family member is willing to do, remember to leave the choices up to them (more on this later), he adds.
4. Help Them Plan for Anxiety in Advance
Depending on your loved one's openness, you might offer to help them prepare for potentially anxiety-provoking social settings. One idea is to work with your friend or family member to jot down situations that might trigger anxiety and brainstorm ways to handle the onset of overwhelming feelings, Hafeez says.
For example, if the thought of a dinner party makes your loved one nervous, they can generate calming strategies in advance like taking deep breaths or going for a short walk. Having a plan often eases the nerves, Hafeez says.
Likewise, you can also help your friend create an anxiety hierarchy by thinking through and writing down their fears from mild to most severe, she says. And then, depending on how your friend or family member feels, you can offer your support in each situation.
For instance, if going to a club is the most terrifying thing on their list, you can accompany them in less anxiety-provoking situations, say, going to dinner with a few friends, until they've worked their way up their anxiety hierarchy and reached a willingness to try the club.
5. Let Them Make the Decisions
While you can be an ally, cheerleader and shoulder to lean on, always make it clear that your loved one is in charge of the situation.
"Let your friend know that you're coming along for support and will cooperate in whatever way that person requests," Carbonell says. "In other words, you'll let them make the decisions, and if they decide to leave early, you won't stand in the way."
Or judge them. Validating how someone feels and supporting them in a nonjudgmental way is the best thing you can do to help a friend or family member, Hafeez says.