For those with social anxiety, being forced into a full scale shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic and having to work one hundred percent remotely might seem like a blessing. You no longer have to endure getting onto crowded elevators or try to avoid coworkers while making a quick run to the break room for more coffee. In-person meetings have been replaced with virtual conferences and business travel is currently off the table.
That said, the pandemic is also a curse of sorts. It has caused treatment setbacks because in-vivo exposure is (mostly) out of the question. We can now hide behind our masks, and sheltering in place or teleworking gives us an excuse to stay home and avoid interacting with others. But all of this means we don’t progress with therapy.
What’s Different During The Pandemic?
One of the biggest fears a person with social anxiety has is the fear of being judged. Are your clothes “correct”? Did you say the right thing? Were your actions acceptable?
During normal times, someone with social anxiety might cringe at the idea of something like going into a Starbucks and placing an order. During a pandemic, there is an added list of social “requirements” that seem to change on a daily basis. We now have to ensure that we are standing the correct distance from others, wearing our masks properly, and keeping our hands scrupulously clean – all while trying desperately not to sneeze or cough inadvertently. It’s enough to make anyone throw up their hands and retreat in defeat, whether socially anxious or not.
Reducing Pandemic-Driven Social Anxiety
The first step to overcoming social anxiety during the pandemic is to be realistic.
Remember that we are all navigating these dramatic life changes together. No one has the key to doing everything correctly and we are all making mistakes. For example, just the other day, I got out of my car and headed into the dentist’s office without my mask. I had the feel that something was missing, but I couldn’t identify it until the other patients in the waiting room looked at me with fear in their eyes while adjusting their own masks. I quickly scurried back to my car to retrieve it, all the while feeling foolish and embarrassed because I had forgotten it. But I also knew, without a doubt, that every person in that reception area had done or will do something similar.
The next step in reducing pandemic-driven social anxiety is to be kind to yourself. The point of my forgotten-mask story is that we’re all human and we’re all going to have those moments. Give yourself a break and know that we are all struggling to remember the new rules for social contact. If you make a mistake, remind yourself that it’s almost inevitable that errors will happen when we are under stress and trying to cope with a circumstance that is as life-altering as a pandemic. Forgive yourself without trying to hide or run away. Doing so will help the negative emotions pass more quickly.
Third, keep in mind that every single one of us is now socially awkward to a certain extent. While we’ve been in shut down mode, we’ve let our social “muscles” deteriorate. Studies done on astronauts who are isolated in the space station for six-month periods show that behavioral issues are common for those in social isolation. Upon returning to civilization, they can be more impulsive, less tolerant, and feel more socially awkward.
Indeed, researchers who spent an entire year in isolation at the Antarctic research station, Concordia, had to learn how to socially integrate after coming back home. Beth Healey, a medical doctor who lived at the station and ran physiological and psychological experiments on the crew said about her homecoming, “Socially I had lost most of my confidence and found myself hiding behind my friend when we were booking into hotels or ordering food. It took time to readjust.”
As the world begins to reopen, we’re all having to learn how to readjust. Virtual interaction doesn’t keep our social skills quite as fluent as real-world interactions. Add a mask that inhibits interaction and it isolates us even more. Those who expect the world, jobs, and relationships to remain the same as they were pre-pandemic will likely fare the worst.
Certain practices can help to keep a person with social anxiety from losing any ground they might have gained in overcoming their disorder during the shutdowns.
- Keep a positive attitude and look at the pandemic as an opportunity to grow and practice social skills while everyone else is relearning theirs. Make it a point to stay connected with those to whom you are closest. Start small by sending a text to someone you are comfortable with and set a goal that you will do this with a different person daily.
- Once you get used to this and your anxiety stays at a more manageable level, set another goal to increase these social connections with a phone call or video chat. If you converse with the same people you texted, the proverbial ice is already broken, so you will likely be less fearful.
- Anxiety is normal for everyone, so right now is a good time to make it a practice to challenge your internal dialog. For example, when your anxious thoughts tell you that you will make an embarrassing mistake if you go into Starbucks, counter that by thinking and picturing how everyone is now in the same position as you and will be more likely to blow off someone else’s mistakes.
- Prepare for a social interaction by mentally picturing how it will go. While you can’t imagine every scenario, framing the first few minutes of the meeting and greeting phase of an interaction can help to reduce anxiety.
- Self-care helps build resilience. In particular, positive affirmations (“I am safe”), meditation, mindfulness, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep all help to reduce anxiety and support mental health.
Andrew Rosen, Ph.D.
NSAC – South Florida
NASA.gov. The Human Body in Space. Retrieved September 4, 2020 from https://www.nasa.gov/hrp/bodyinspace
Healey, B (2016, June 3) Part 7. The Homecoming. Chronicles from Concordia. Retrieved September 4, 2020, from https://blogs.esa.int/concordia/2016/06/03/part-7-the-homecoming/