- Many people are anxious or fearful about participating in social activities due to the pandemic.
- Social anxiety may be due to feeling a lack of control over social interactions.
- People can manage social anxiety by acknowledging their emotions, shifting their focus, and reframing the experience.
About half of Americans are uneasy about readjusting to in-person interactions. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had two jabs or none. Half of us are feeling anxious about traveling, commuting, being back in the office, and just generally being around other people again.
COVID re-entry anxiety is a feeling of unease, nervousness, or worry about participating in social activities that have paused over the past year and a half. Think being on crowded planes, stuck in traffic, and standing around the water cooler struggling to find something to talk about on Monday morning.
One symptom of this COVID re-entry anxiety is the recent spate of bad behavior on planes. Over the past 15 months, we’ve been told to wear masks and stay socially distant from others. Throw a bunch of strangers onto a crowded plane with some fast-changing mask guidelines, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
The Desire to Control Uncertainty
Thinking about uncertainty and control can be one helpful way to understand and alleviate COVID re-entry anxiety.
COVID-19 was out of our control. We no longer had a say about where we could go and with whom we could spend time. We traded in this lack of control for a sense of exaggerated control when we holed up in our homes. We’re in charge at home. We don’t have to talk to strangers or struggle through crowds.
Think about social anxiety. People with social anxiety often avoid the uncertainty of social interactions by staying at home. When they’re at home, they can safely predict that they won’t find themselves in an embarrassing social encounter.
Because they know there won’t be social encounters.
It’s similar with COVID re-entry anxiety. We’re shifting from the certainty of banana bread and sourdough starters (although many of us found that sourdough starters weren’t quite as certain as we’d hoped) to the uncertainty of sitting next to a stranger on an overbooked plane.
So what can we do about COVID re-entry anxiety? How can we ease our unease as restrictions continue to lift this summer?
1. Get Curious
Before you do anything, it’s important to shift your mindset about your fears and anxieties. Instead of being judgmental and critical and trying to muscle through this transition, get curious. You’ve been through it over the past couple of years. We all have. Over 600,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Life as we knew it was suddenly over. Many people lost jobs and made drastic life changes to keep themselves and their families afloat.
It’s important to start out by being gentle with yourself. There is a collective sense of grief, mourning, and shock that’s well-earned. Instead of ignoring it, try to put on your therapist hat and wonder, “How does this make me feel?”
Then, whatever the answer is, remain curious and accepting about your feelings. You’ve been through a lot. How you’re feeling today isn’t indicative of how you’ll feel forever. So be curious about your process instead of being hard on yourself.
2. Admit It
Admit how you’re feeling. If you’re one of the millions of people who are feeling that COVID re-entry anxiety, fess up. Be honest about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. What are your fears about social interactions?
You can’t begin to feel better without acknowledging how you feel in the first place.
3. Consider How Much Control You Have
Some anxiety is good. It tells us when we need to make changes in our lives. If I’m anxious about going back to work because my boss is a jerk, that could be a sign that it’s time to start looking for a new job.
So consider how much control you have in the situation that’s causing your anxiety. Is your upcoming social interaction necessary? Is your mind trying to keep you safe? Can you make changes in your life to mitigate some of your stress?
For example, if you’re anxious about commuting to work again, think about what you have control over. Some people can quit their job and start consulting. Others are forced back to the office and don’t have the luxury of quitting, but they could drive instead of taking the train.
List what you can control and make adjustments accordingly.
For the things we cannot change, there’s always the reframe. Reframing is when you change how you think about something.
For example, if I have to fly, but I’m feeling anxious about being pressed up against angry strangers, I can reframe the experience. Instead of focusing on the negative, I could bring my noise-canceling headphones and a book I’ve been excited to read. Now it’s a chance to catch up on reading instead of a hellscape of shared armrests.
Reframing an experience doesn’t mean pretending bad things are good. But it is an opportunity to look at situations from a different (and hopefully less anxiety-provoking) angle.
5. Shift Your Focus
You can also shift your focus during a stressful situation. Instead of being on the lookout for confirmation of your worst fears, why not watch out for some good stuff too?
I get in my head during social interactions. When I do, I try to shift my focus to feel better. I try to break the cycle of intrusive, anxious thoughts by focusing on my immediate environment and the people around me. It’s the same logic as when someone who’s afraid of public speaking imagines the audience in their underwear. If I’m thinking about other people, I can’t also be thinking about how anxious and afraid I am.
Now, I’m not saying you should picture people in their underwear. There are lots of other ways to shift your focus from internal to external to get out of your head. You could pretend you’re an anthropologist studying human behavior. You could try to make people laugh or smile. You could even turn the whole experience into a game. Maybe you earn a point every time someone bumps you as they pass through the aisle. Suddenly, this crowded plane isn’t so bad.
Practice Understanding and Patience
No matter what you do, I hope you use this re-entry time as a chance to start over. You’re a different person than you were pre-pandemic. That means you can use this transitional period to experiment with your mindset, your attitude, your behavior, and your tolerance for risk and uncertainty.
Instead of scripting the future and deciding how bad your next social interaction will be, be ready for anything. Be curious and honest about how you feel. Remember how transient these thoughts and feelings are.
Unease and worry make sense when we think about what’s happened to us all since last March, but that doesn’t have to stop us from living. We can still reemerge into the world, ready to explore. I’m going to be easy on myself and curious about how I’ve changed. I’m also going to be pushing myself to be less in my head and more present and open as I move through the world again.
This re-entry period can be an opportunity to start over. We can interact with each other from a place of compassion and understanding instead of fear of judgment. I mean, we’ve all been through the wringer. The least we can do is to be patient with ourselves and others.
Good luck out there, everyone. I've got your back and hope you have mine.
Even if you bump into me when you walk back to your seat from the airplane lavatory.