One of the most glaring and concerning patterns I’ve experienced with my clients since the emergence of the pandemic is a noticeable increase in social anxiety. This is due to the increased ease of social avoidance and a reinforced fear (that was already present) of socializing caused by the pandemic.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which mental health professionals use as a guide, social anxiety disorder is defined as the “marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others.”
Before the pandemic, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that just over 19% of American adults will experience at least one anxiety disorder over any 12-month period. Typically, social anxiety disorder affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population. Social anxiety is equally common among men and women and typically begins at around age 13. People often experience symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help from a professional.
The former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has recently brought attention to the association between the absence of social connections during the pandemic and how this loneliness is linked to worsening physical and mental health, including anxiety and depression. That means it’s important to find ways to offset and heal social anxiety, even at a time when it might feel easy to just slip into avoiding social interaction completely.
Here are a few simple techniques to help you cope with any social anxiety woes you may be enduring during these surreal times:
1. Remind yourself about what used to be “normal” to you.
It’s important to cue your brain to what used to be typically normal human interaction in your life. The longer we socially distance and isolate, the easier it is for us to lose our socialization skills and the inherent feelings of us being in groups. Rekindle memories of normal things you did before the pandemic, without wearing a mask or social distancing. Immerse yourself in television series or movies that brought joy to you and remind you of how social interaction used to be. Reminders of how life used to be will better prepare the brain for the future.
2. Create pleasing imagery.
Sit in a quiet place to meditate and use imagery to practice being in social situations once the pandemic is over. Vividly imagine mastery experiences and interactions with different people, conversations, and venues you will encounter. Take deep, soothing breaths, and program yourself to feel “calm control.”
Practice these mental exercises for five minutes daily so they become routine. The more your brain practices mastery experiences, even if imaginary, the easier it is for your brain to reprogram itself.
3. Practice being around people.
Step out of your comfort zone to go to the grocery store or pharmacy to feel socially connected to people from a safe distance. Hand-pick a few people you trust outside your immediate family to socialize with in person; take a 15-minute walk or sit in the park. (Here are a few safe outdoor date ideas that you can also do with friends.) You can adjust your goals based on whatever level of anxiety is tolerable. Practice some form of social interaction in your daily regimen. Don’t let your anxiety take charge of you. Sustaining discipline practicing is more important than how much or how long you do it.
4. Participate and get involved on Zoom calls and activities.
Challenge yourself to keep the camera on during your Zoom calls, and verbally participate. This will force you to manage the fear of being judged for your social reactions or the reactions of others. Hiding on Zoom calls and not dealing with fears you may have of speaking in public will only fuel and exacerbate your symptoms of social anxiety. Commit and set goals for speaking up, and try to beat them each week.
5. Be consistent.
The key to being effective with these techniques is to consistently practice them. If you don’t experience any measurable levels of reduction in your social anxiety, you may need to seek professional guidance. A therapist—or the National Social Anxiety Center, which has regional clinics—might be worth exploring.