By MCHH THERAPIST RACHEL JUSTIE MA, LPC
Quarantining due to COVID-19 led to unprecedented and drastic changes to many aspects of life, especially those related to socializing. Many people have spent over a year with minimal contact with friends, family, coworkers and others in their social support network. Now that restrictions are being lifted and people feel safer returning to social situations, many are finding the idea of being social again unfamiliar, or even scary. Some are experiencing this social anxiety for the first time, while others have dealt with it before. Regardless of whether social anxiety is a new struggle or not, here are some strategies to help you ease back into socializing with more comfort and confidence.
Start small. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of being around larger groups of people again, take things at your own pace, day-by-day and one interaction at a time. Try pushing yourself to say “yes” more frequently to step out of your comfort zone. Discomfort, within reason, can be a huge opportunity for growth. Sometimes the best way to get comfortable is to continue to practice being uncomfortable.
—Start with “how have you been?” and gradually work towards building on conversations… “What have you been up to during the pandemic?” Or, “What are you most excited to start doing again?” These types of questions can help identify things you have in common with others to build connections.
—Ask a question during a meeting, with the goal of eventually being more comfortable sharing ideas or opinions.
—Ask a peer or coworker to go with you for a quick lunch or coffee.
Make a plan including steps to be more comfortable. Anxiety can arise because of a lack of control over certain circumstances. While we cannot control everything, there are some steps that can be taken to increase comfort and decrease anxiety. For example, if you’re attending a new social gathering, bringing along a friend or someone who you are familiar with can add a feeling of safety. Or, going to a social setting that you used to frequent and are familiar with may help you feel more comfortable branching out (i.e. coffee shop, gym, church or other place of worship). It may also be helpful to plan and prepare for easy, go-to conversation topics (i.e. summer plans, current events).
Practice relaxation and mindfulness strategies. Skills like deep breathing can help with the more physical symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling shaky or your heart racing, especially in social situations. Using deep breathing prior to entering a social situation can help to get your physical symptoms more under control. In addition, repeating positive affirmations, thoughts or mantras can help quiet anxious thoughts. Examples include “I am a smart, confident person,” “I am in control,” “meeting new people is enjoyable.”
Learn more about breathing exercises: https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-exercises-for-anxiety#equal-breath
Recognize and address your negative thinking patterns. Whether aware of it or not, many people engage in negative or irrational thinking patterns. The first step to changing these patterns is identifying the faulty thoughts and beliefs that accompany them, such as “I’m going to embarrass myself,” “nobody will like me,” or “I need to be perfect in order to be liked/accepted.” The next step is to challenge these thoughts and replace them with more productive and positive thoughts. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are these thoughts helpful? Are they based in reality? What’s the worst that could happen? Will this matter in a week, a month, a year? What do I have control over? It can also be helpful to identify similar situations that you successfully handled pre-pandemic.
Example: “I haven’t spoken to my coworkers in person in so long, I will probably be nervous and say something stupid, they will think I am dumb, they will avoid me going forward.” Instead, more productive thoughts might include the following: “These thoughts are not helpful, I am catastrophizing. In the past, I have gotten along well with these coworkers. Even if I do say something silly, I am likely the only person who will remember it in a week. I am human. Other people are in the same boat as me.”
Learn to laugh. Break the ice with a joke and learn to laugh, remind yourself that you’re not alone in this feeling: everyone is readjusting to socializing again. Starting a conversation off with a question like “Isn’t it funny that we all forgot how to socialize?” may help.
Take pride in your progress. Give yourself credit for the effort you’re putting in and know you’re not alone in this struggle. If you’re continuing to struggle or need more help, consider reaching out to a professional.