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Anxiety

Is COVID Re-Entry Causing Your Social Anxiety to Surge?

Here are some tips for managing your re-entry social anxiety.

Key points

  • People have avoided many uncomfortable social situations due to the pandemic.
  • For those with social anxiety, avoidance just makes anxiety worse in the long run.
  • There are steps people can take to work on overcoming re-entry social anxiety, like rating and then practicing specific fears.
kite_rin/Adobe Stock
Source: kite_rin/Adobe Stock

As people rejoice that life is starting to return to normal, you might find yourself having mixed feelings about it. For those who experience social anxiety, the pandemic has been an opportunity to avoid uncomfortable social situations.

Without needing to come up with a justification, you’ve successfully avoided going to unwanted dinners, parties, and happy hours. Remote working has meant avoiding meaningless small talk in the office elevator, bathroom, and kitchen. Maybe you’ve found Zoom meetings to feel more comfortable than in-person ones. If you are a parent of a younger child, you’ve had a welcomed break from chitchat with the other parents at the school drop-off, kid’s birthday parties, and during their sporting events.

Anxiety and avoidance

Avoidance and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Anxiety evolved so that people (and animals) could protect themselves, and with anxiety often comes avoidance. For example, if you had a severe allergy to bees and stumbled upon a buzzing beehive, you would likely become anxious, turn around, and understandably would avoid that area in the future. Leaving that situation and avoiding it is very adaptive because there is an actual threat to you.

People with social anxiety perceive social situations to be threatening. However, in this case, the threat isn’t of bodily harm. Instead, it is a fear of things like embarrassment and judgment by others.

There are many reasons why people have social anxiety, such as having a genetic vulnerability to anxiety, growing up with parents who had their own social anxiety, or even having a lack of social skills. Some people report having had a humiliating experience that triggered social anxiety. For example, once in elementary school, I was reading a passage out loud and stumbled on the pronunciation of a word. My teacher yelled at me, which triggered anxiety about classroom participation. To protect myself from potential criticism, for years, I avoided raising my hand in class.

Although it feels like a huge relief to avoid situations that make you anxious, it actually could make your social anxiety worse in the long run. The relief that comes from avoidance makes it more likely you will avoid these types of situations in the future. In doing so, you deprive yourself of an opportunity to “practice” being in the situation. The next time an anxiety-provoking social situation comes up, you might be more motivated to avoid it, leading to more anxiety and more avoidance. With COVID, people have gotten out of practice at being in social situations, making it understandable why it is so hard to reenter the world!

How to overcome re-entry social anxiety

If you wanted to run in a 10K race but hadn’t run in over a year, you would need to practice in order to build up your endurance. The same is true if COVID re-entry has triggered your social anxiety.

Here are some tips:

Validate yourself.

If you were to start training for that 10K race and realized how out of shape you were, it would not bode well for your practice runs and participation in the race if you kept berating yourself about it. With social anxiety, it’s important to have kindness and compassion for yourself with your struggles and act as your own positive coach.

Explore and re-evaluate your specific fears.

What are you afraid of specifically? Not knowing what to say to people? People judging you for the weight you put on during COVID? Ask yourself to critically evaluate your fears: “What is the worst-case scenario?” and, “If the worst were were to happen, how would I cope?

Another common fear with social anxiety is the judgment of others, but since you are not a mind reader, it’s impossible to know what someone is thinking without asking them. Also, people are often too busy with their own concerns to be as judgmental as you might fear.

Develop your fear hierarchy.

Next, list all of the upcoming social situations that cause anxiety, and be specific about the details. For example, if you are anxious about going to work, ask yourself what specific situations related to work cause you the most anxiety. Then, rate your anxiety about each one on a 1-10 scale, and put in order of lowest to highest anxiety. Here is an example fear hierarchy of going back into the office:

Driving up to my office and not going in – 3

Going into work, not talking to anybody, and closing the door to my office – 4

Having a meal with a work friend – 4

Making small talk in the elevator or kitchen at work – 5

Going to a meeting – 6

Going to happy hour with work colleagues – 7

Speaking up in a meeting – 8

Presenting at a meeting – 10

Start practicing.

If possible, it’s best to practice with the lower-anxiety situations and work your way up the hierarchy. For example, if you know that your office is opening back up in two weeks, you might practice driving to your office first. If you have access to the office before it opens, you could practice going in, in the days before it opens. You might also consider getting together with a work colleague in advance of the official opening.

In sum

If you are experiencing an uptick in your social anxiety as things start to open up, you are not alone. It means you need more practice.

Consider what happened to my class participation anxiety and avoidance. After years of avoiding participating in class, things had to change when I started graduate school. An older student in the program advised me that in order to be successful in the program, I should try to make at least one comment in class during every class meeting. As stressful and as painful as it was at first, I took his advice. At some point during that year, it got easier and easier to participate. You, too, can start to conquer your re-entry social anxiety by practicing and overcoming your feared situations.

References

Spence, S. H., & Rapee, R. M. (2016). The etiology of social anxiety disorder: An evidence-based model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 86, 50–67.

Butler, R. M., O’Day, E. B., Swee, M. B., Horenstein, A., & Heimberg, R. G. (2021). Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder: Predictors of treatment outcome in a quasi-naturalistic setting. Behavior Therapy, 52(2), 465–477.

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