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Dealing With Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety

How to face yourself with compassion.

Key points

  • COVID-related mask-wearing and social distancing have changed the way people socialize.
  • Individuals with social anxiety may be particularly wary of re-engaging in social situations.
  • Fortunately, techniques like mirror meditation can help people ease back into the social scene and make genuine connections.
Source: Product School/Unsplash
Source: Product School/Unsplash

Wearing face masks in public for nearly two years has changed how we approach social interactions. These coverings created multiple challenges in face-to-face social interactions, from dealing with foggy glasses to straining to hear muffled conversations. Despite their importance in preventing the spread of disease, their impact on our mental health is still unknown. For instance, face-to-face interaction is crucial for language development and emotion regulation. So it may have been more challenging to learn these skills and keep up with them while regularly wearing a face covering.

Yet, as face masks became routine, some found a new sense of comfort and security in moving through the day with their faces shielded. Research has found that some people, especially those with social anxiety, reported feeling less anxious during the mask and social distancing mandates.

Everyone experiences social anxiety to varying degrees. But for some people, it causes a great deal of stress that interferes with daily functioning. People with chronic social anxiety have an extremely high level of self-consciousness. They think everyone is intensely scrutinizing them and judging their appearance and every movement and utterance with a laser focus for any flaws or imperfections.

Socially anxious people may avoid public situations because of the fear of criticism and the possibility of social rejection. They often struggle to control and hide signs of nervousness like blushing and emotional displays of distress. A face mask can buffer the worry of their expressions, mannerisms, and even their identity being scrutinized by others. Everyday social tasks can become much less anxiety-provoking simply by wearing a face mask and keeping one’s distance.

Now that we are taking off the masks and going to more in-person social events, social anxiety might rebound. Most people probably feel at least a bit awkward and self-conscious after having their faces partially veiled from the general public for so many months. So, here are some tips that can help you get back out there socially.

First, remember, it’s normal to feel anxious about going out after being away from social contact for so long. When we do anything new or unfamiliar, it’s normal to experience a sense of awkwardness and self-consciousness. Consider naming it: Tell people you’re feeling a little awkward or anxious. Chances are they’re feeling a bit uncomfortable too. Acknowledging it can break the tension and increase your rapport.

Second, we typically tend to overestimate how much other people notice us. Social psychologists call this the spotlight effect. If you’re already feeling anxious, you may have an exaggerated sense of feeling that everyone is watching you. Consider that people really aren’t looking at you with the intensity of scrutiny you might think.

Third, let yourself do something a little embarrassing on purpose. In treating social anxiety, clinical psychologists often recommend confronting the fear by doing what you dread most. You can work up to doing it gradually. This type of social mishap exposure can help you develop a more realistic understanding of what happens if you make social mistakes, which may eventually reduce social anxiety. You realize it’s never as bad as you’ve imagined it would be.

Also, when we’re anxious, we tend to look outside ourselves for confirmation that we’re OK. But you might not always get that reassurance, especially at a social event where everyone feels a bit anxious. So you can learn to support yourself first, then turn your attention to others. Sort of like the advice for using an oxygen mask!

You can learn to support yourself in anxious moments. In my upcoming book on Mirror Meditation, I share strategies to use the mirror to acknowledge and appreciate yourself. Here are some suggestions for you to try out.

Start by finding a mirror and a quiet place free from distractions. Gaze into your own eyes. Next, notice your breathing—you can watch your breath in the mirror. See if you can breathe a bit deeper—it sounds cliché—but it’s one of the quickest ways to reduce your anxiety. Then notice your facial expression—you might be surprised at how stressed you look. But instead of worrying about how others might see you, see yourself as a person suffering and have some compassion for yourself. It takes a bit of effort to get over the natural tendency to avoid looking at yourself when you’re feeling anxious, but you’ll find great freedom if you can break the habit of hiding from yourself and others.

If you practice mirror meditation regularly, you’ll learn to be in the present moment with open awareness and a kind intention toward yourself. Then when you glance in the mirror before a social event—you’ll be reminded that you can be calm and have compassion toward yourself. It takes practice, but it’s worth it!

Then, once you feel centered and confident, enter the room and turn your attention toward others. Social anxiety and self-consciousness involve focusing your attention on your internal state. The more you think about how nervous you are, the more anxious you become. Instead, focus your attention outward: Look at the people you’re talking to and become so interested in your conversation that you lose your self-consciousness and enjoy the moment.

The pandemic has changed how we socialize and what we value most about it. So resist the impulse to withdraw from the unfamiliar and embrace the new social opportunities as you start a new chapter.

Copyright 2022. Tara Well, Ph.D.