Covid and Social Anxiety
For those of us who suffer from acute social anxiety, the rules inflicted on us during the initial lockdown from COVID-19 came as a secret blessing. All of those awkward “good mornings” to invasive co-workers, excruciating small-talk around the boiling kettle in the staff room and the rigmarole of anxiously ‘finding things to say that aren’t boring’ to people we just don’t care about just magically disappeared. Honestly, it felt like Christmas and all my twenty-something birthdays had just rolled into one beautiful speech by Boris proclaiming everyone had to “do the right thing and stay inside”. Oh no, I have to work from home. What a shame! The first few weeks were blissful. I could go to the toilet whenever I wanted, drink my own decent coffee that didn’t taste like leftovers from the 1940s rationing scheme and I could just switch my laptop off at the end of the day instead of boil away in my car driving at 15mph behind some decrepit old fart in a Honda Jazz. No unnecessary chit-chat, no queuing for a stupid bread-roll with a piece of grey ham for £3.00 and no more listening to mundane conversation around the water cooler. It felt like all my anxiety had dissipated away. I revelled in the fact I could just potter about in my slippers, watering my plants and talking to the dog between emails instead of being lectured at by Miserable Liz as I would have to exercise an array of well-practised ‘concerned faces’ while she droned on about her never-ending divorce. Bliss. To think this dream life could happen in my life-time!
This was all marvellous, or so I thought until the first lock-down was lifted. I had not realised how much worse my social anxiety had become until I was in a situation where I had to communicate with others again. I found it difficult to hold eye contact, I grew anxious much quicker and felt obscenely exposed and self-conscious.
The first day that we had to go back to work was a nightmare. I panicked about everything, what I looked like, whether I had gained weight, whether I was able to work with my co-workers properly. I couldn’t communicate freely and I didn’t feel I even knew how to end a conversation properly. I had to fight doing the little wave when leaving a staff meeting, like the one we had crafted on Zoom. The days felt longer and incredibly stressful and I just didn’t know what to SAY anymore. Also, everything sounded louder too. The first staff meeting felt like I was walking off the plane and heading across an active runway. People were just talking, babbling over the top of each other and I just wanted to hide. The reason I am writing this is because I know that I am not alone in this – other people have struggled with managing their post-lockdown social anxiety too.
How has lockdown made it all worse?
Quite simply, the fact that we have not exposed ourselves to our fears regularly enough is the reason why. Even though we felt a degree of social anxiety before, by not exposing ourselves to what is making us feel stressed is what has prevented us from building the same resilience to it. Yes, being at home and wallowing in the glow of calm, safe isolation, may seem like an attractive option, however it hasn’t rid us of the issue in the first place. Without realising we have simultaneously built up a bigger problem for ourselves, while avoiding the issue altogether.
What can we do?
Social anxiety can be treated through a whole spectrum of different ways. You’ve just got to find the right route for you.
Here are a few strategies:
Try to expose yourself to what is making you anxious. Think about whether it is seeing friends, going to busy places or just being around people in general?
Talk to a professional therapist. This can help you to better understand where your anxiety stems from and find ways to confront your anxieties.
Talk to someone you trust. A friend or loved one, perhaps? You would be surprised by how many people suffer from it too.
Speak to your doctor, they might be able to help through prescribing some helpful medication.
All in all, what you are suffering from is social phobia. This essentially means that your brain believes that people are a source of danger. The more that we avoid interacting with others, the more we affirm to our subconscious that people are a source of danger. Although we can argue that avoiding social interaction has been due to the rules of the lockdowns, there have been other ways in which we could still interact with others.
Although Teams and Zoom have come through as the social Leaders of the Apocalypse, we have to give them credit for the fact that they have managed to hold businesses together. I, or one, have come to realise the importance of social interaction in order to actually function in the rat-race of the 21st century. One way to ensure that we are keeping up with communicating with other people is through using social media. There are plenty of free apps that still allow us to talk to our loved ones and I cannot stress enough how important that is. A way to gently increase our confidence in engaging with others is to stop opting out of video calls and hiding behind the keyboard in staff meetings. Get dressed, brush your hair and opt-in. Making a concerted effort to face our fears and break the cycle of avoiding social interaction is making our problems worse.
Another option would be to join an online course. You can talk to new people who will inevitably be like-minded and you don’t have to worry about what they are thinking because you have no idea who they are.
Online socialising can be the saving-grace of those of us who are cripplingly socially anxious. It could provide the stepping stone to building up the skills and confidence to better our communication skills in the “real world” too.
One aspect to this lockdown that has been positive is the rule about social distancing. This actually allowed some of us the space to engage in social interaction at our own safe distance. They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit and I believe that after a year of the disruptions from the pandemic, people are genuinely used to the 2-metre distance now, or at least it isn’t seen as weird to stand a little further back from someone. This is another positive step for us introverted, socially-phobic people as there is nothing worse than the feeling that your own space has been infringed by the invisible tentacles of another invasive extrovert. Now that we have these new post-pandemic social mannerisms on our side with the two-metre rule then we need to make the most of it and try to engage in social interaction outside using the blessing of space to our advantage.
Another rule that was brought about by COVID-19 was the social bubble. Interestingly, this has made us all scrutinise those around us and hone in on who we really could face seeing. This helped to narrow down what felt like 7 billion people swarming around us to a simple rule-of-six. Six. Six people and that is it – a much smaller and more comfortable number of human beings. Those triggers of having to be surrounded by abusers, contentious family members and awkward social add-ons were a strict no-no simply because we had to adhere to the rules. I for one found this rule to be quite helpful in sieving out situations from being potentially overwhelming. Perhaps committing to a similar rule will help to ease those feelings of an impending panic attack if we know that there are only going to be a few people there? By starting your social interaction on a small scale and then gently opening it up to more people once you feel comfortable will be a great way to ease your way into those scenarios.
What I am saying is that this pandemic has truthfully hit us all hard, even those who were thrilled with the new, utopian, pandemic world. Even though it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to just “be ourselves” and avoid those moments that would leave us feeling utterly exhausted. That chronic tiredness and general fatigue that comes from anxiety-driven social interaction has honestly left a lot of us feeling desperately lonely. We did however manage to endure a real taste of what our idyllic world would be like and unpredictably, in some ways it was much more intense than we expected. On the other hand, there were some steps that helped ease millions of people in and out of social isolation and there are many of those strategies that can be applied to those of us who struggle to do just that on a day-to-day basis.
If I could suggest anything, it would be to keep trying. This pandemic has taught us that by avoiding socialising altogether leaves a far worse outcome than we expected. Even though it can be hard to expose ourselves to our deepest fears, it is absolutely necessary in finding our path to healing from the crippling symptoms of social anxiety. If it means using online platforms, sticking to the rule of six or forming a ‘social bubble’ to help you ease your way into interacting with others, then try it, you never know, it might just work.
Jimi D Katsis is a Bristol based consultant psychotherapist at jimikatsis.com specialising in recovery from trauma, depression, and anxiety