After over a year since the pandemic started, there is finally an end in sight. The vaccine has been rolled out to anyone who wishes to be immunized and restaurants, speciality stores and personal care services are opening back up. Which means having our old lives back is less of a mirage and more of a reality than ever before.
Hang on a second though, for a lot of us, we were just getting into the groove of this ‘new normal’. I have an abundance of craft projects on the go and have almost started looking forward to spending my weekends alone, buried under a pile of feathers and glitter, six seasons in to the Netflix show I just started. Reverting to weekends jam packed with social engagements will not only halt my crafting, but the mere thought of it is downright daunting!
Hardly putting our social skills to use for a year has left us all a bit out of practice. To say these social graces are a bit rusty may be an understatement. Personally, something as simple as ordering a coffee at my local coffee shop – something I used to do every day without fail - has become slightly overwhelming. First, being in such close proximity to other humans after being in a sanctuary of my own presence for so long has caused me to become more irritated than normal. Why is everyone standing so close to me? Are people breathing louder than normal? Can everyone hurry up already? It takes all of me to get these thoughts out of my mind so I can start rehearsing my order and prevent messing up when it’s my turn. As my turn with the cashier gets closer and closer, I can feel my heart start to beat a bit faster. Am I sweating? I blurt out my order and forget to exchange the typical social pleasantries of ‘hi, how are you’ which causes the sweating to triple as I wait for my oat milk latte at the other end of the counter. This used to be so easy; why has it become such a hurdle? If getting my coffee has become this challenging, how will I ever seamlessly get back into my old ways of hanging out with multiple friends, meeting new people, and going back to work in person?
If you find yourself feeling this way, rest assured it’s completely normal and actually makes a lot of sense given the circumstances. While of course there is so much to look forward to as we prepare to readjust again to new societal norms, this can be extremely stressful for a lot of reasons. First, change in general can trigger a fear response as our sense of stability is challenged. This can call upon our fight or flight response causing us to resist or avoid certain changes. Second, being out of the social game for a year now, combined with the way that being around people has been deemed ‘risky behaviour’ for physical health reasons, it makes sense that our brains may associate fear with social engagement.
So, what do we do to get over this? Although this stress that we may be feeling as the world opens back up is not necessarily ‘social anxiety’, we can use what we know about social phobia as a jumping off point. Social anxiety is a fear that something uncomfortable will occur in a social setting. The more people with social anxiety avoid social settings the more their brain catastrophizes these events. One of the best ways to overcome this kind of fear is to face it (gently), proving to yourself that the fear is baseless. Obviously, this is a lot easier said than done, so below are a few practical tips to help ease your way back into the social game:
1. Start Small: If you’re feeling anxious about re-entering the social world taking baby steps might help relax you back into the groove. Instead of making your post-vaccine debut at a large party, start by meeting with close friends for a quick coffee. This will slowly remind your brain that social situations aren’t all bad, which help make that big party feel a lot less daunting.
2. Make a Plan: Sometimes the fear that comes up with social situations is largely based in the unknown. Visualizing the situation and planning for those unknowns can help you feel more prepared. For example, looking up the menu beforehand may take away the pressure of ordering. Another part of planning could be preparing for your social outing with a mindfulness exercise to help control your breathing. A final thing to consider planning for is what you will do if you become overwhelmed. Knowing that you have an escape plan can help increase your sense of emotional security when you go out.
3. Be Compassionate with Yourself: As mentioned above, feeling anxious about the dramatic changes in our lives as a result of this pandemic is completely normal and is actually quite expected. Find comfort in knowing you’re not alone. When negative thoughts come up around “why is this is so difficult?” or “why did I stumble on my words while ordering?” react with kindness towards yourself. Self-compassion can help take the pressure off. Having a mantra in mind to say to yourself in moments of stress is a helpful way to hype yourself up and get over the hurdles. It can be something as simple as reminding yourself that you are strong and capable of overcoming this challenge, or something more personal related to what you are struggling with.
As we anticipate another shift in how we have been living, it is natural to feel stressed, unsure, and uneasy. Up until this point, most of us have never experienced such dramatic alterations in the way we conduct our lives on a global scale. The silver lining is that we’re all in it together, which makes talking to friends, family, and other support systems another great way to get through this. Although deeply upsetting in many ways, this global pandemic has been a testament to the resiliency of humanity and that together we will get back to the new ‘new normal’.