Guest post blog by Codie Surratt, MA, LPC, LMT
So just how do you manage social anxiety post-pandemic?
“Do I need to wear my mask?”
“Does it feel like this place is too crowded?”
“Are we sure we’re ready to meet people and go out?”
“Will the kids need their masks, even if we adults technically don’t?”
These are just a few of the anxious thoughts I’ve had swirling around in my head recently and if you’re like me or many of my friends, you may have had some, too. This past 16 months have had all of us essentially locked down in place, with most of us being extremely careful about where we went and who we met up with. We added to our common vocabulary with words like quarantine, social distance, and coronavirus. We learned the value of hand sanitizer, N95 masks, PPP, and oddly enough, toilet paper.
It has been quite a year of what I would call collective traumas. And now there is a new anxiety-provoking experience: the prospect of re-entry. While your need for interpersonal connection is strong and your desire to throw open the doors as we become vaccinated is real, there may be also something niggling just below the surface of your deep need for normalcy. That something has got a name. Re-entry anxiety.
Although akin to social anxiety, re-entry anxiety is a new term, coined from the fear of getting out of our respective bubbles of the past year and re-entering a world still riddled with uncertainty. Your brain craves certainty, and this combination of the trauma you have endured for the past many months, coupled with the knowledge that a virus continues to circulate that can cause injury and even death, can leave you with a real dilemma: do you get back to normal or should you stay put and wait this one out?
Anxiety itself is a fear of what-ifs. Fear of what might happen to you in the future and your brain’s effort to keep you safe from those what-ifs. Again, your brain has a real desire to know exactly where all the exit points are, and what to do should it decide you are in grave danger.
These fears of the what-ifs can be as simple as, “what if I don’t know how to have small talk with people anymore” or “what if I don’t fit in real pants” to as looming as, “what if I contract coronavirus and spread it to my unvaccinated kids” or “what if I get sick and die”.
This is a new territory for your brain and for all of us to navigate – a space none of us has ever been in before. If you find yourself staying up at night trying to figure out how to exist in this new normal, here are a few ideas that might help you manage social anxiety post-pandemic.
Take it slow
We all want to be in that place where we don’t have to think of things like masks and vaccines any longer. Yet caution rightly should be a way of life for a while. This is not a virus to mess around with.
So take a deep breath and let your body guide you. Pay attention to physical cues of discomfort as you consider different paths forward. Tap into the anxiety or worry that is there and allow it to inform action – even if it’s slow action. Take things only as fast as you feel you can safely go. Settle into the fact that you may not feel quite ready to jump into large, crowded areas, or have gatherings at your home for a while. It is ok.
Yes, I realize there will be situations that you cannot avoid such as workplaces that are requiring you to step back into the office or areas that allow vaccinated patrons to go maskless. But remember, you have made it this far by trusting science and utilizing mitigations that contributed to your safety. Those things are still available to you, and you get to decide your level of comfort. Go at your pace – the pace that you feel suits you and your family.
Let’s face it, some of us haven’t had to hold an in-person conversation or meet new people in quite some time. And if just reading that made you feel squeamish, feeling comfortable and confident about re-entering society may feel like a plan for anyone but you. I get it.
One thing that can help with feeling socially awkward and anxious is to visualize various scenarios to help ease your nerves. I spoke earlier about our brains needing certainty, and one way you can help train your brain to feel less triggered by social situations is to visualize them. Doing so helps familiarize your nervous system with the feelings of being seen.
So try this. Get in a comfortable spot and think of one aspect of re-entering society that makes you feel the distress. Take some deep breaths, close your eyes if that feels safe, and see the scene. Picture being in the office, saying hi to people on the streets, getting on the bus or the train. Whatever the scene may be, truly put yourself in that space, feel what your body is experiencing, breathe deeply, and remind yourself that you are safe. Visualization can be an excellent tool for calming the nerves, connecting to the breath and body, and allowing your brain to feel safe.
Setting boundaries may not be something you excel at, or maybe it is. Either way, boundary setting can be a key way to manage social anxiety as you re-enter the post-pandemic world. It is the way to not only survive, but to thrive in this new normal. Boundaries are there to support your choices.
Because in this brave new world, with new rules and new ways of existing, you will have to make choices based on your level of comfort. These choices may not align with your friends, co-workers, family members, or various other people in your life, but in order to begin navigating this new world, making and communicating these choices (having boundaries!) is key.
Holding steady to your intention and plan for adjusting to this new normal will help you and those around you understand that this is how you’re choosing to manage this transition. Taking some time to mindfully reflect on what you want these next few months to look like is important. Having a plan in place can add to your level of comfort and can help you communicate your boundaries more effectively to those in your circle.
Gently Challenge Yourself
Again, many of us have been quarantining for quite a long time. Venturing out of that bubble can be scary. It can seem safer to simply NOT do so, but let’s face it, the world is out there and sometimes you have to challenge your fear in order to live. It is a balance, and no one can determine what truly feels safe and comfortable to you. But, challenging some of your core beliefs can often open up a new avenue of life, one that may not have existed in your space of comfort.
You’ve probably seen the Venn diagram of stepping out of the comfort zone to experience all the vastness of life. Well, this obviously comes with a little bit of a new wrinkle: no one told the creator of that diagram that we might survive a pandemic and then feel a little shaky stepping out of our bubbles. However, when we do challenge anxiety a bit, we often find that the thought of the situation was much scarier than the actual situation itself. So when you can, challenge the what-ifs with a little reframe: “Sure, maybe I’m rusty at small talk, but what if I have the best time I’ve had in over a year!”
Finally, be kind to yourself
Self-compassion is my superpower and I want it to be yours as well. When your mind begins to spin with all the ways you’re failing to tackle managing your anxiety in the post-pandemic life, please hear this: you are amazing and you have managed to make it through one of the historical events of our lifetime. That is no small task.
So when you feel like staying home, snuggling on the couch, and eating pizza, be kind to that part of you that needs comfort at that moment. When your friends or family want to get together and you’re not quite ready, be kind to you, and comfort that part of you that isn’t there yet.
Remind yourself of all the ways you’ve navigated this past year. Tally up every single thing you did: from wearing masks and washing hands, to Zooming meetings and teaching third grade math, to reaching out to a therapist and helping a friend who lost their loved one. You are worth celebrating! If that means stepping out and taking off the mask and proclaiming 2021 as the year you get back to living, as slowly as feels right, then kudos to you! You can do it, your way.
As always, if you or someone you love needs help navigating social anxiety post-pandemic at this tricky time, contact me or any of the therapists here at Life Care Wellness. Many of our therapists are providing not only telehealth, but also in-person therapy again in our Glen Ellyn, Jefferson Park, and Sycamore offices.
Blog by Codie Surratt, MA, LPC, LMT
Codie is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Massage Therapist who has worked with children and adolescents coping with the effects of divorce, grief, stress, anxiety, and school related issues. She also works with adults, particularly women. She draws upon many approaches to create a compassionate, yet challenging experience and therapeutic environment for each client. Codie uses a variety of evidence-based treatments and techniques such as mindfulness-based therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, strength-based therapy, and somatic therapy. Helping clients see that they have the strength to choose their response regardless of their situation is the bedrock of her work, and the source of passion she derives from seeing each client develop self-worth and self-agency.