Like most people, I spent this past spring in strict lockdown as our family rode out the first stage of the pandemic. We live in the NYC metropolitan area, so when I say we were in lockdown, we were in lockdown. As COVID-19 ravaged our area, there were a few weeks where we didn’t even leave our apartment building… talk about isolation.
Personally, I’m an introvert, so this level of isolation wasn’t too difficult for me. I was definitely stressed about the pandemic itself. But the isolation part? That part wasn’t so painful. In many ways, this new stage of the pandemic has been more stressful than the first.
First, there’s the fact that every single activity we do now has to be analyzed for virus risk. Does a lawn visit with the family require masks even if we are six feet apart? Is outdoor dining really as safe as they say it is, and is it even ethical to meet up with friends outside of our family unit at a local café when the servers are forced to work in uncertain conditions?
But perhaps for some, the biggest stressor may be grappling with the idea of socializing again. Granted, I missed my friends and family. But I haven’t had an in-person encounter with someone who doesn’t live in my apartment for almost five months now.
Like many people out there, I have an anxiety disorder, and although social anxiety has never been a main characteristic of my experience of anxiety, it seems to have become exacerbated as a result of lockdown.
I’m realizing that as I emerge from lockdown (safely, and with social distance), I’m going to need a plan for dealing with this newly emerging social anxiety — and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
So here are a few tips that I’m keeping in mind as I begin socializing… pandemic-style.
1. Ease Out Slowly
So far, I’ve started with just a few very small meetings with my mom on her lawn. She’s someone I am extremely comfortable with and who I feel like I can be myself around. We started with brief visits every few weeks and now they are becoming more regular. Easing into socializing — with someone I feel extremely comfortable with — has eased the stress and overwhelm of socializing again.
2. Keep Your Boundaries In Check
Now, more than ever, it’s important to keep our boundaries in check. This is certainly true when it comes to the safety of meeting up with someone face to face (or, rather, mask to mask), but it can also be expanded to your own comfort levels in terms of socializing. If you need to keep your meetings brief because you will think you will tire out easily or become overwhelmed, make your preferences known. If you are the type of person who prefers one-on-one encounters because larger groups are overstimulating, feel free to decline plans or plan social dates that fit your personality. Everyone’s boundaries and needs are real and should be honored. Communication with your loved ones is always extremely important, but right now it’s imperative!
3. Talk About It
If you are feeling anxious about socializing with a particular person, or socializing in general, reach out. I know — reaching out to someone when you are already anxious about interacting with them in the first place can be stressful. But sometimes voicing your concern in another medium, such as a text or direct message, can be easier.
You can keep it lighthearted, and can say something like, “OMG, I can’t wait to see you. But warning: I haven’t hung out with another human in months. So I might be awkward.” Something simple like that can break the ice and open up a conversation about your feelings. A good friend will not judge you and will help you feel more comfortable if and when you actually meet up.
4. Remember That Your Feelings Are Normal
Okay, here’s maybe the most important thing (and I need this reminder as much as anyone!). If you are feeling nervous and awkward about rebooting your social life after lockdown, you are far from alone. Even people who don’t generally have social anxiety are finding it disorienting to enter their social life after months of living like a hermit. This is a strange time for us all. So let’s recognize that whatever emotion we are feeling is normal, and give ourselves a ton of grace as we navigate this new normal together.
5. Seek Professional Help If You Are Struggling
A little social stress and anxiety can be normal, especially in a time like this. But some people do have social anxiety, or social phobia, which is a diagnosable anxiety disorder. It’s even possible to newly develop social anxiety after a traumatic event such as a pandemic.
Signs of a social anxiety disorder include:
- Severe anxiety about socializing
- Fear of being judged or rejected in social situations
- Fear of being seen as anxious or awkward in social situations
- Avoiding social situations
- Physical manifestations, such as racing heart, sweating, nausea, digestive upset
- Panic attacks when faced with social situations
- Feeling unable to control these feelings
The good news is that social anxiety disorder can be effectively treated. Psychotherapy is a wonderful option for treating social anxiety. The problem is that many people who experience social anxiety are too anxious to visit a therapist. In this case, trying an online therapist might be a useful way to ease into therapy. In addition, finding a therapist who specializes in social anxiety can be valuable as well.
Whatever the case, we all need love and connection, even in the middle of a global pandemic — maybe especially so in a time like this. As we look for ways to reconnect with family and friends, remember to honor your own boundaries and needs. Go at your own pace, and remember that what you are feeling is normal, understandable, and absolutely okay.