Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. Get tested. Stay home.
These rules have guided our lives for over a year. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has nearly everyone feeling more anxious than before. Long-term quarantine and a steady stream of video calls may have enhanced existing conditions or created new feelings of social anxiety. Now as vaccination rates rise and businesses begin to open back up, the thought of returning to the “Before Times” may make you feel uneasy.
You’re not alone
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both increased significantly from June 2019 to December 2020, with a higher rate of reported symptoms for women. A lack of in-person interaction became the norm as we waited for things to return to “normal.” Coupled with increased technology use and strict safety guidelines, this isolation became the breeding ground for social anxiety.
People who were diagnosed with anxiety disorders prior to COVID-19 may have noticed increased frequency or severity of their symptoms as the pandemic wore on. Others who never had those concerns before may have started to notice them more and more.
Social anxiety symptoms may include heightened fear of embarrassment or perceived judgment from others along with fear of interacting with others in a group setting. Many people experience these feelings to some degree. But for some, these feelings are so intense that they may cause the person to avoid social interactions altogether.
Ways to cope
Does this sound familiar? Elise Cusimano and Brieanna Peabody, health coach educators at EmblemHealth,* offer a few tips to help you manage social anxiety as you start making plans with friends and family:
- Ease into it. You don’t have to dive into a large gathering when you’ve been alone for a while. Start by meeting with one or two people for a few hours. Gradually increase the time and size of the group as you feel comfortable.
- Look for the positives. Remember the joy you felt in past interactions and believe these meetings will bring the same feelings.
- Stay grounded. Consider journaling, meditation, listening to soothing music, or other grounding activities to help relax you before, during, and after a social event.
- Get moving! Exercise is great for your physical and mental health. Choose an activity you enjoy, like walking, dancing, or playing with a pet.
- Talk it out. Express your concerns to family and friends when making plans.
- Stay safe. Check on the CDC’s latest guidance for fully vaccinated people and social gatherings.
- Be your own advocate. It can take time before you feel comfortable in groups again, and that’s okay. Give yourself permission to take it at your own pace.
If you need to take a break, focus on your breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose to fill your belly and feel your chest rise. Exhale slowly through the nose again, trying to make the exhale last longer than the inhale. This helps you stay in the present and not worry about the “what if’s” of a social interaction.
- “Social Anxiety During COVID-19,” Anxiety & Depression Association of America
- “Coping with coronavirus: Dealing with daily stress, anxiety, and a range of other emotions,” Harvard Health Publishing
- “COVID-19: Mental Health and Substance Use,” NYC Health