For people who struggle with social anxiety disorders, the pandemic has been a particularly strange time. On the one hand, staying home seems perfectly suited to people for whom navigating social events can be exhausting. It is also easier for many people with social anxiety disorders to work remotely, communicating over voice calls and emails rather than face to face.
However, the relief brought by lockdowns has been superficial. Most individuals with social anxiety disorders have recognized the dangers that lockdown posed to their progress. It is very disheartening to have worked on learning to navigate social events for years, only to have the process rudely interrupted.
People who have social anxiety are having a tougher time returning to the way things were. For many, it will seem as if they have gone backward. The good news is that mental exercise, just like physical exercise, creates a kind of “muscle memory.” The first steps back into the outside world can make it feel like you are starting from scratch. However, you will soon realize that your skills are still there, even if they are rusty.
Here are 4 tips for managing social anxiety as life returns to normal.
1. Practice in low-pressure environments
Your instinct will be to avoid social situations until something too important to miss comes along. However, this is the last thing you want. After more than a year of limited social activity, jumping into the deep end by going to an important meeting is going to be incredibly difficult.
Instead, find low-pressure environments in which you can practice. This may mean spending time with a small group of friends you’re not that close to or going to a singles event where you can meet strangers you don’t have to see ever again. You know your triggers, so start with environments that have a few of them as possible.
You don’t need to do this for all that long, as you will make quicker progress than when you first started working on yourself.
2. Challenge negative thoughts
One of the most excruciating aspects of social anxiety is negative thoughts. They spiral through your mind, telling you that you are not good enough and that another person will judge you, reminding you of mistakes you made in the past and causing you to relive your most embarrassing moments.
The instinct for most people is to try and shut these thoughts up, even if this hardly ever works. You spend ages fighting with your own mind for the quiet that never comes.
Instead of trying to shut your thoughts up, rather take the most repetitive, hurtful thoughts and challenge them. When challenged with clarity, these thoughts fall apart very quickly and no longer bother you as much.
To do this, you need to get down to the thoughts that are actually causing you distress. The thought that you will probably blush when speaking to your boss may be true, but it is not what you are struggling with. Rather, it is the thought that tells you the supposed terrible consequences of blushing. Challenge whether it is really so bad, and ask what would happen if you accepted it without trying to change something natural that happens to most people.
3. See your therapist
Many people with social anxiety have continued seeing their therapists throughout the pandemic. However, others may have stopped seeing their therapist when they felt they had gained the skills necessary or when there were no social events to attend. Before diving into social situations after a year without them, see your therapist. You don’t need to go back to weekly sessions, but a session or two to refresh yourself on your skillset will help remind you how far you have come.
4. Join a support group
Support groups are one of the most helpful ways of treating your social anxiety. Not only do they provide a safe space to practice meeting people and having conversations, but they also show you that you are not alone. Many people with social anxiety think that there is no one else who agonizes as they do about social situations. In a support group, you find out how common your experience actually is.
People with social anxiety often avoid speaking about the reactions they find embarrassing, such as blushing and sweating. Being able to speak about them with others who are as susceptible to them as you are is one of the most reassuring experiences. The burden is lifted, or at least you no longer have to hold it alone. You can learn to own these reactions, acknowledging them when they happen without feeling defeated.
Going back into social situations after so much isolation is going to be difficult. The good news is that the progress you made before the pandemic is not lost, and there are ways to work on your skillset before dealing with the most high-pressure events.