At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago, staying at home and physically distancing from others became necessary precautions to slow virus transmission and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
Now, as people are returning to the office, mask mandates are lifting, and we begin to reemerge into society, connecting physically with others is becoming more and more part of our daily lives again.
While some people may find this in-person socializing exuberant after being cooped up for so long, others may face anxiety and distress in these now new again social situations.
“Re-entry anxiety is normal for everyone,” said Hillary Ammon, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Those that chose to socially distance themselves or were encouraged to complete school or work from home became comfortable with those shifts in their behaviors.”
“Now, as they reemerge and return to work and school or start to attend social gatherings, it is normal to experience some worry or discomfort for various reasons,” Ammon said.
Social anxiety can manifest in a number of ways.
“The most obvious symptoms to look for include experiencing severe discomfort in social situations and the choice to avoid social outings,” Ammon said. “Often this discomfort or avoidance is fueled by fears of being judged or embarrassed.”
You may also notice physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and feeling flushed in social situations.
Why many are experiencing social anxiety for the first time
Experts say people who have never experienced social anxiety in the past may be surprised to find they are feeling it now.
“I think a lot of people are experiencing unexpected feelings,” said Franklin Schneier, MD, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at The New York State Psychiatric Institute, located at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Even people who aren’t particularly socially anxious may feel a bit awkward jumping back into activities that were previously comfortable for them.”
One reason for this is that a lot of people are simply out of practice. “Partially, it may be because they are no longer comfortable or familiar with those former habits,” Ammon said.
There may also be anxiety related to pandemic protocols in social settings.
“There’s a bit of uncertainty right now with how much to interact if you hug people or can shake hands,” Schneier said. “Some of the rules of social interaction are still in flux.”
Further complicating this, many people have different comfort levels when it comes to how they socialize.
“You have to think about what might make someone else feel uncomfortable,” Schneier said. “What’s your own comfort level? Is everyone OK with meeting in a large group? What if someone still wants to wear a mask?”
Speaking of masks, many people are also still grappling with the effects of the politicization of safety precautions such as vaccines and mask-wearing.
“Now that mask mandates have been lifted in most cities, some may worry about being judged for their choice of wearing a mask or not wearing a mask,” Ammon said.
How the pandemic has affected people already living with social anxiety
People who were already dealing with social anxiety pre-pandemic are very familiar with the worry and discomfort social situations can bring.
However, many of these individuals experienced the pandemic pretty differently than others.
As a psychologist in an anxiety clinic, Ammon works with many clients with social anxiety.
“Many of them shared that the pandemic was ideal for their social anxiety because it allowed them to avoid many settings and situations that caused them distress,” she said. “Several of them shared that remote learning, work, and socialization was idyllic and preferred the protocols of social distancing.”
But as we reemerge as a society, those who experience social anxiety are likely feeling that familiar distress creep up again.
“Unfortunately, it’s likely that their social anxieties did not go away, but were temporarily put on pause, as they were not required to endure situations that cause them anxiety,” Ammon said. “These social worries have likely returned as they start to reemerge and they will be faced with similar challenges, if not more heightened anxiety, due to prolonged avoidance.”
Schneier noted that this prolonged avoidance meant these individuals had fewer opportunities to practice their social skills and to realize that, usually, their worst fears don’t actually come to pass when they go into a social situation.
“Missing out on those kinds of corrective experiences can lead people to have increased anxiety going into new situations again,” he said.
Firstly, if you’re experiencing some anxiety in social situations, know that this is completely natural.
Strategies for dealing with social anxiety are the same whether you’re experiencing it for the first time or it’s a familiar feeling.
Accept the anxiety and face what the fear is
A common strategy for dealing with anxiety around a social situation is just to ignore it.
“That may work for very mild concerns, but it could also be counterproductive because you’re not really dealing with what the fear is,” Schneier said.
Think through your fears and figure out what exactly it is that’s causing concern. Once you can name that, you can then think through ways to deal with it.
Have a game plan
When you’re aware of what’s causing your anxiety, have a game plan to address it.
“Let’s say you’re going to a party and you’re unsure about everyone’s level of comfort with social rules of interaction,” Schneier said. “You may also be concerned about not having anything to talk about. One strategy would be to bring up the difficulty of socializing, coming back after COVID, and asking others how they feel.”
He also recommends thinking of a couple of general topics to have at the tip of your tongue. “That’ll just help reduce your initial anxiety and let you get into the swing of things,” he said.
Think of social outings as experiments
As with many things in life, practice makes perfect.
“People experiencing re-entry anxieties will likely become more comfortable in these situations as they engage in them more often,” Ammon said.
After the social interaction, you can also revisit those initial worries and check the facts: Did that feared outcome happen, and if it did, was it as bad as expected?
Be mindful of your alcohol consumption
For many people, alcohol can act as a social lubricant. In moderation, a glass or two of alcohol during a social event is fine, but it can become a problem for people who drink excessively.
“Excessive alcohol is counterproductive,” Schneier said. “People may think it’s helping them, but in reality, they may be appearing foolish to others. The key is knowing yourself and knowing your limits.”