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  • Jacqueline Siempelkamp

Social Distancing turned Social Anxiety

The world has changed quite drastically since March 2020, to say the least. We’ve all been impacted by this pandemic, especially on a social level. Some people have stayed very socially connected and have jumped at the chance to see friends and family in person again. Others have remained quite hesitant and have avoided socializing with peers at all during times that have felt unsafe.

Many of us are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. We are left feeling a little socially anxious after periods of quarantine and social distancing. When considering social situations, we are feeling stressed and are wondering how we used to know what to say to people. Instead of working through the discomfort and nervousness of a new social situation, some of us are wondering if it’s even worth it and are choosing to stay home instead.

With COVID cases rising again and guidelines changing, it can be difficult to know the “right” thing to do and how to go about being social with others. If all this sounds familiar to you, some helpful suggestions might include:

  • Evaluate the situation: Social gatherings, big and small, are going to come up. This might be grabbing coffee with a friend or getting together with that side of the family you haven’t seen in a while. No matter what size the situation, if feelings of nervousness or hesitation come up it’s important to tune into those emotions and consider what might be contributing.

  • Use grounding techniques: Anxiety may bubble up even if you want to spend time socializing with others. There are ways to ground yourself in order to calm those nerves. Try tapping your thumb with each finger for a few seconds; make note of your five senses and pick out one thing you observe for each. There are many ways to get back control of your body and resume having a good time.

  • Challenge negative thoughts: If you are coping with significant social anxiety, social situations are likely to bring up intrusive thoughts that don’t make you feel very good. If you start to feel like all eyes are on you, or you’re afraid to say something because of what someone else might think, challenge those negative thoughts with something else. Ask yourself, what will realistically happen if you share that idea with others? What’s the worst that could happen and how likely is that outcome? Are people really looking at and judging you, or is it possible that you simply feel nervous? Focus on interacting with people who make you feel good and remind yourself that you can get through this.

  • Engage in positive self-talk: Build yourself up and bring out those feelings of confidence and reassurance. Internally, give yourself messages like, “I can get through this,” “I can contribute to this conversation,” “I enjoy spending time with these friends,” “I like going to school,” and so on. Remind yourself of what is true—if you can speak positive words to yourself, it can be the fuel and encouragement you need to work through anxious feelings.

  • Reinvent what it means to be social: Use this time to reflect on what about pre-pandemic life brought joy and which parts you would like to do without. Be mindful to engage in activities that are fulfilling both with others and individually. Give yourself permission to have changed throughout this experience, as most people have. Additionally, be honest with yourself if you notice you’re avoiding situations that may not have bothered you before.

  • Seek help: Counseling services have surged throughout the pandemic, and understandably so. If you are feeling off, disengaged, and notice increased feelings of anxiety or dread, it could be time to seek professional help. Talking with a therapist can help provide insight as to what could be going on behind these behaviors and emotions. Therapy is a safe space to identify concerns, process feelings, and learn coping strategies that can truly help you deal with any of life’s stressors. Engaging in therapy is commonplace these days and using this tool can help remind you that you’re not alone and can help ease anxiety surrounding social situations.

As a society, our social batteries have changed over the last year and a half. We used to have packed schedules and would make every social gathering fit into our lives. The thought of what we used to do sometimes seem overwhelming now; many of us have noticed a decreased tolerance for socialization. Relationships have changed and the way we’ve spent time together has shifted as well. Moving forward, we’ll all need to check in with ourselves and decide how to define our new social normal.

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