Ask the expert: How can I cope with social anxiety post-lockdown?

During the pandemic, some of us became quite comfortable staying in and not interacting with others. Now things are slowly starting to open up again, those social interactions are back. For those with social anxiety, this can feel quite challenging. 

Here, we talk to integrative therapist Abby Rawlinson to learn more about how we can manage social anxiety and ease into post-lockdown life.

I’ve gotten really used to not interacting with others during lockdown and am worried about making small talk with colleagues and service workers/retail staff again. Do you have any advice for easing back into it?

After a year of socialising digitally, it’s understandable if you feel anxious or uneasy about in-person interactions. It’s OK to take each day at your own pace and, remember, you’re in control of what you feel comfortable doing. For example, if your office reopens, but you’re still allowed to work from home, build up your attendance in the office slowly and re-connect with people at a rate that feels comfortable for you so that you don’t become overwhelmed. 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to bounce back to the level of socialising you were at pre-pandemic. You might find in-person interactions very tiring at first, so make sure you take care of your well-being and set aside some time each day for activities that can help you relax.

I can already feel my social anxiety peaking and I’m thinking about every possible outcome of interactions. How can I calm my thinking? 

When we’re anxious about socialising, we tend to hyper-focus on all the things that could potentially go wrong (e.g. “I won’t have anything interesting to say”). This is a form of ‘anticipatory anxiety’ and it actually makes things worse because it leads to ‘fortune telling’ or ‘catastrophising’ thought patterns. These are common ‘cognitive distortions’ in social anxiety and can lead to fear and panic.

Try to become aware of your thoughts and ask yourself ‘Do I have any evidence that this thought is true? And is there a more helpful way of looking at this?’

Social anxiety tends to turn our attention inwards, which can make the symptoms of anxiety worse. So, if you’re feeling nervous in a social situation, pay attention to what your conversation partner is saying, rather than thinking about what to say next. And try not to worry too much if there are silences. Everybody has a responsibility to keep the conversation going, not just you. 

Invitations for social gatherings are starting to come through, but I don’t feel comfortable with this yet. Do you have any tips for saying no?

If you’ve been invited to something you don’t feel comfortable doing, it’s important to be truthful and clearly let others know where you stand. 

Saying ‘no’ can sometimes feel difficult so it can be helpful to rehearse what you’ll say so that you communicate clearly and non-defensively. You don’t need a long and waffly explanation, try to keep it short and focussed, and remember that “I don’t feel comfortable because of the pandemic” is a legitimate reason. 

Remember, it is OK to disappoint people. We often have an over-sense of responsibility for other people’s moods and reactions but remind yourself that you’re only responsible for yourself and if someone is disappointed or sad about your decision, that doesn’t mean you need to change your mind. 

My anxiety has gotten worse during lockdown and I think it’s time to get professional help. Can you tell me how counselling can help social anxiety?

Therapy gives you a safe space to explore your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and their origins while simultaneously learning the skills you need to make meaningful changes. At the core of social anxiety is a perception that there is something embarrassing about us that we want to conceal or hide. In therapy, you can learn to recognise and change these negative thoughts about yourself and develop skills to help you gain confidence in social situations.

Therapy can also help minimise ‘safety-seeking behaviours’, which are the coping behaviours we use to reduce fear when we feel anxious (e.g. avoiding social situations or averting eye contact). These behaviours may reduce the feelings of anxiety, but they’re a quick fix that actually worsen the problem.

Find a counsellor who can help with social anxiety today.

I have a friend who struggles with social anxiety, how can I support them as lockdown restrictions ease?

It can be frustrating or disappointing if a friend turns down an invitation or cancels plans at the last minute, but try to bring some patience and compassion to those who are struggling. Rather than criticising your friend or trying to convince them to do something they don’t want to do, try to just listen without judgement. 

Sometimes a simple text message like ‘I understand and I’m not angry’ or ‘Don’t feel guilty for not coming. I’m here if you want to talk’ can be incredibly supportive.

Top tips for those struggling with social anxiety:

1. Set boundaries. Now, more than ever, being up-front about our comfort levels and communicating our boundaries is so important. Remember – you’re in control of what you feel comfortable doing and it’s OK to take the changes at your own pace and build up your tolerance gently. 

2. Practice self-compassion. After a year of collective trauma – and much still unknown about what lies ahead – it’s understandable if you feel anxious. Practice being supportive, gentle and understanding to yourself. Remind yourself that this is a difficult time for many people.

3. Schedule a time to worry. Scheduling a time during the day for worrying can be a useful strategy to manage anxiety. Select a time which you schedule as a ‘worry period’ for 20-30 minutes every day. When worry-related thoughts arise during other parts of the day, postpone those to the worry period. Scheduled worry time helps us become more mindful of the way we think and can help us prioritise our worries and get clear on what we can and cannot control. 

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (June 2021). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Counselling Directory and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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