- Four out of 10 U.S. adults suffer from social anxiety today, up from 1 in 10 in early 2019.
- Those with social anxiety may experience heightened symptoms when they attempt to re-enter social situations post-quarantine.
- Desensitization strategies can aid the re-entry process.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the palpable increase in people suffering from different social anxiety orders due to the pandemic soon after it began. Data shows about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, which is up from 1 in 10 adults from January to June 2019. Most recently, I’m seeing an additional increase in social anxiety among inoculated adults.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll noted that at least 55% of Americans have received the vaccine or plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible, which I feel is a good sign for most of us. However, if you’re suffering from social anxiety, or have family and friends who are, getting inoculated may further exacerbate your symptoms.
This is alarming because the highest percentage of adults suffering from social anxiety are 18-24, almost double the 29% of adults over 65, who account for most of Americans already vaccinated. As younger adults get inoculated, an increased level in post-inoculation social anxiety is likely to occur.
How does post-inoculation social anxiety affect people? Before the pandemic, socially anxious people managed their social fears with regular desensitization, which is the ability to diminish your emotional responsiveness to distressing stimuli with repeated exposure to it. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have retreated to safe spaces, reducing their need to practice and challenge their social skills. As a result, it atrophied their extroversion muscle and fueled another psychological issue called avoidance-avoidance conflict, which is a choice between two equally objectionable options. For example, choosing to leave the living space in which you feel trapped, but desperately fearing the social environment outside of your four walls.
Therefore, if you’re a socially anxious person, or know someone who is, you can use desensitization to power through your fears and re-enter society as the competent social being you were before the pandemic emerged. Here are five desensitization strategies to help you overcome any increased levels of social anxiety you may experience after inoculation:
1. Desensitize faulty thinking:
The first step to altering your faulty thinking is to reframe your narrative. Start using self-talk daily to integrate factual data that your inoculation guarantees 90-95% efficacy depending on which vaccine you received. Remind yourself your body has recovered from illnesses in the past, to mitigate the 10% remaining risk you may over focus on. Try to stem avoidance strategy, which allows you to focus on fears you had about COVID (such as illness or death) before they vaccinated you.
2. Desensitize to your original personal space guidelines:
You may have developed a personal space bubble that is too challenging for you to interact with others because you're not heard (particularly through a mask) or seen. Try facing your fears by slowly moving closer to people. Remind yourself there’s an option for others to move away if you accidentally invade their personal space.
3. Desensitize to speaking up to strangers:
There are many ways you can interact with people daily in small ways, but it takes practice. Go grocery shopping, or to a pharmacy or bookstore and ask for items, even if you already know the aisle where they’re located. Be creative and make it fun, instead of staying home and convincing yourself there’s no one for you to interact with.
4. Desensitize to closed spaces:
If you’re afraid of closed spaces, take baby steps. Try having a coffee inside and then progress to a meal indoors, a manicure, or a shopping expedition. Desensitization works as you increase your time engaging in a certain task. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself by increasing the time you spend indoors.
5. Desensitize to groups:
It’s hard for socially anxious inoculated people to imagine socializing with groups of people with masks, let alone without. Take it slow and start socializing with small numbers of people. Desensitization strategies are more effective if you’re patient and don’t move too fast. Wait to set a higher standard to interact with more people after your comfort level has grown.
It’s critical to practice and combat your social anxiety now, in the early stages of the inoculation process. It will help you get better prepared for re-entry. And just a reminder, unless you're in the company of other vaccinated individuals in small gatherings, the CDC recommends you continue to take precautions in public places like wearing a mask, staying six feet apart from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and washing your hands often.
“How the COVID-19 pandemic affects people with society,” by Jessica Caporuscio, Pharm.D., Medical News Today, May 13, 2020.
“The Implications of Covid-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse,” by Nirmita Panchal, Rabah Kamal, Cynthia Cox and Rachel Garfield, Kaiser Family Foundation, February 10, 2021