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Overcoming social anxiety: How to socialise after lockdown

Nervous about socialising again when all lockdowns are lifted? Here are some tips on how to overcome social anxiety and enjoy seeing people in person.

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Over the last year and a half, our global community has become increasingly used to being in a state of lockdown. The timings and regulations of these lockdowns have varied across the world, but every country has felt the effects of being in relative social isolation.

Naturally, as a result, many people are feeling nervous about socialising again, particularly in big groups or with strangers. For some people, this fear might even manifest as social anxiety. In order to help you feel comfortable with lifting restrictions and socialising again, we’ve created this guide for after lockdown.

We’ll discuss what social anxiety is, how to treat it, and why it’s normal to feel anxious about socialising at the end of lockdown. There’ll also be some tips on how to build your confidence and reduce stress during social interactions and events.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety or social phobia is a disorder that causes a strong fear of being in social situations and performing in front of other people. Even in situations that wouldn’t normally be fear-inducing, someone with social anxiety might worry about being laughed at, humiliated, or harshly judged. They might feel uncomfortable being stuck with strangers or in large crowds of people. In our open step about social anxiety by the University of Groningen, Tineke Oldehinkel suggests that social anxiety is a special kind of fear of failure, or extreme fear of embarrassing yourself.

Some of the most common scenarios where social anxiety might strike include meeting new people, dating, public speaking, starting conversations, and eating in front of people. Some of these things might sound nerve-racking, while some might not, but for someone with social anxiety, they can all feel traumatic. In the most extreme cases, people with social anxiety may avoid almost all social situations, including school.

What causes social anxiety?

There are many causes of social anxiety, and they’re not always straightforward. Often it can be a combination of several factors. However, we’ve listed the main causes listed by Very Well Mind below:

  • Genetics. If members of your family have an anxiety disorder, your chances of also having one increase. This is thought to be a result of both nature and nurture, but studies done with twins demonstrate that there is a genetic component.
  • Observing people with social anxiety. If people around you are very anxious in social situations, and discuss their fear often, this could affect your social wellbeing and lead to you taking on some of these feelings.
  • Early traumatic event. Negative childhood experiences or past trauma can cause anxiety disorders. In some instances, this might be a singular incident like the death of a loved one, but this could also be repeated negative experiences such as physical or emotional abuse or bullying.
  • Parenting style.​ Children who grow up feeling worried about how their parents might react to things can develop social anxiety, especially if a parent is rejecting, controlling, critical, or overprotective.
  • Isolated upbringing. If, as a child, you were not exposed to many social situations, you may not have developed appropriate social skills, making it harder for you to socialise and be in uncomfortable situations.
  • Brain structure. Research has shown differences in brain activity between those with social anxiety and those without. Several studies have found that people with social anxiety disorder have increased blood flow in their amygdala, a part of the limbic system associated with fear, compared to other people.

Symptoms of social anxiety

The symptoms of social anxiety disorder won’t be exactly the same for everyone, but we’ve taken some of the most common physical and psychological symptoms from Healthline and listed them below: 

  • blushing
  • intense worrying about social events
  • nausea
  • excessive sweating
  • missing school or work
  • trembling or shaking
  • needing alcohol in social situations
  • difficulty speaking
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • rapid heart rate
  • fear that people will notice you’re anxious

Treatments and social anxiety support

If you’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, there are some treatments available out there. We explore these in more detail in our What is Anxiety blog post, but we’ll provide a brief overview of the main treatments, including therapy and medication options. If you’re concerned about your own mental health, ensure that you discuss any treatment options with a mental health professional. 

Therapy for social anxiety

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a type of talking therapy often used to treat depression and anxiety and aims to disrupt negative thinking patterns. To find out more about CBT used to treat anxiety, try our Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT course from the University of Reading.
  • Applied relaxation therapy. This is a good way to tackle the physical symptoms of anxiety and can be especially effective for panic disorder. It involves using muscle relaxation techniques to help the body calm down.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Specifically for social anxiety disorder, ACT is based on Buddhist philosophy and involves learning to accept negative thoughts and anxiety rather than eliminate them.

Anxiety medications

  • Benzodiazepines (tranquillisers). These drugs provide quick relief for panic attacks and anxiety by shutting down the nervous system, but are very addictive and can make people feel foggy and tired. 
  • Antidepressants. The risk of dependency and abuse is lower than for taking benzodiazepines, but antidepressants are not a quick fix, as they can take six to eight weeks to kick in. They balance the neurotransmitters in your brain.
  • Beta-blockers. Beta-blockers are mild tranquillisers that don’t kick in as quickly as benzodiazepines, and also don’t impair memory and coordination in the same way. They increase serotonin and decrease dopamine in the brain. 

Is it normal to have some social anxiety after lockdown?

It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling with the idea of socialising again, and that everyone else can’t wait to get back out there. However, even people who are excited might also feel anxious about social situations, and research shows that as much as 40% of the UK population are nervous about socialising again and leaving their comfort zone.

Humans are naturally social creatures, and prolonged isolation can affect the way we interact with others, including our communication skills and confidence. This can be particularly hard for those with social anxiety disorder. Former psychology researcher and social anxiety coach, Marla Genova, states that it’s really important for those with SAD to maintain progress and have frequent social interactions, as otherwise, they can slip into old patterns of avoiding social situations.

However, clinical psychologist, Linda Blair, argues that most of our social skills are acquired between the ages of zero and seven, and they don’t disappear so easily. While it may feel like you need to relearn how to socialise, the truth is that you’re not irreparably damaged. You merely need to gradually practice socialising again and your social skills will come back to you.

It may also be interesting to know that while some social anxiety is normal after lockdown, it’s also not unusual to experience some personal growth. In our open step about the psychological impact of COVID-19 by Maudsley Learning, experts discuss the idea that we can experience positive personal growth following adversity and challenges. This concept is known as Post-traumatic Growth.

Therefore, it might be comforting to know that you may actually have gained some things from having persevered through the pandemic, rather than just feeling like you’ve lost social skills. Research has shown that personal growth can show up in several ways, including a new appreciation in life, improved relationships with others, and spiritual change.

What are the main concerns people have about socialising again?

Before we discuss how to feel more confident and tackle feelings of anxiety in social situations, it might be useful to identify the main concerns that people have about getting back on the social scene. This isn’t a definitive list but gives you an idea about what people might be feeling anxious about.

Physical contact

After over a year of social distancing, mask-wearing, and no touching or hugging, a lot of people are scared about the idea of being in close proximity to other people. This may include feeling anxiety about people trying to hug you or shake your hand without you feeling comfortable. Alternatively, your instinct may be to hug a friend you haven’t seen in a while, but you might be scared that they will feel uncomfortable with that and get upset.

To avoid this, it might help to be clear about your boundaries and make sure you communicate well with the people around you. Ask them whether they’re hugging or shaking hands yet, or notice whether they’re wearing a mask or socially distancing from others. Also, everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and there are bound to be a few awkward moments. Embrace the awkwardness and laugh about it if you can.

COVID-19 guidelines

This relates to the previous point about being worried about how much different people are adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. You might be worried about how strict the venue is, whether to wear a face covering, whether everyone can come to dinner and be included, etc. 

It might give you some peace of mind to check the website of any venue you’re visiting, to see what they’ve written about their COVID-19 guidelines. This can mean you feel prepared when you attend a social occasion. Other than that, do what makes you feel comfortable, and be considerate of any vulnerable people around you.

Conversation topics

Another thing that a lot of people are feeling anxious about is the ability to make interesting conversation. Since most of us have been pretty static for the last year and a half, with limits on social contact, we might feel like we have nothing to talk about. However, you are by no means alone in having this feeling, and it’s not true that you have nothing interesting to say.

Emma Warnock-Parkes, a clinical psychologist and researcher on social anxiety disorder at Oxford University, states that “social interactions are not a performance, they’re simply about being with other people”. People don’t have expectations as high as you think they do, and simply talking about how boring you’ve found lockdown is a relatable conversation topic for most people.

How to build confidence and feel less self-conscious

Not being able to see friends and new people may have caused you to lose some confidence in yourself. This is completely normal and natural, but it’s also important to build that confidence back up again so you can enjoy life to the fullest.

In our blog about the art of public speaking, we discussed how there are two main elements to self-confidence: self-efficacy and locus of control. This comes from psychological research done by Judge, Locke and Durham in 1997, and is referred to as ‘Core Self Evaluation’.

We discuss these elements in detail in the public speaking post, but we’ll provide a brief overview here too. Self-efficacy is about the belief you have in your ability to succeed in different situations, while locus of control is about your belief that you are able to influence situations in your life, internally and externally.

In order to further develop your self-efficacy, you should be open to trying new activities and taking on responsibilities, you should find positive role models, and you should ask for feedback and constructive criticisms from others.

To develop your locus of control, you should focus on the things in life that you have total control over, and create goals that relate to those things. You should seek support from different places, whether that’s a therapist, online community or club.

How to reduce stress during social interactions and social events

Finally, we’re going to provide you with some top tips on how to manage and reduce stress and anxiety in social situations. It’s okay if not all of these tips resonate with you, but you can try anything that you feel might help you relax more during social interactions.

Make a plan first

Sometimes, anxiety can arise when we’re not sure exactly what we’ll be doing in a social situation, and we don’t want to have to make spontaneous decisions. To combat this feeling, make a plan of what you’re doing beforehand, and try to stick to it. This way, you can focus on enjoying your time. If you’re not sure what to do, take a look at our blog post with 60 post-lockdown ideas.

Brush up on your social skills

You might feel a bit more comfortable if you brush up on some social skills, especially if you know that you struggle in a particular area. You could try taking a course in communication skills, social dynamics, or business etiquette

Talk about your concerns

Talking about your fears can really help to relieve anxiety. Before you meet up with friends, family or colleagues, reach out to them and tell them that you’re feeling nervous about meeting again. The most likely consequence is that they’ll give you reassurance, or let you know that they’re feeling the same.

Start small

You don’t need to immediately push yourself to meet up with a large group or go out somewhere where there’ll be lots of people. Start by meeting one person for a coffee, and do this with people you feel comfortable with until your worries have subsided. Then, you can work your way up to bigger groups of people and more elaborate events.

Go with a trusted friend or family member

If you’re going to an unfamiliar place with people you don’t know, it might help to bring a trusted friend or family member to calm your nerves. However, you should try to make sure you still talk to other people once you’re there; otherwise, you might find yourself relying solely on the person you came with.

Try breathing and muscle relaxation exercises

A tried and tested technique to calm nerves is to do some breathing exercises or muscle relaxation exercises. There are plenty of techniques you can use to calm yourself down, and we have several mindfulness courses that will teach you some of the best methods. You can also take a look at our blog post on meditation for some techniques.

Take a pause

If you’re in a social situation and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to take a breather somewhere. Whether that means going outside for some fresh air, grabbing a drink, or pausing in the bathroom, it can be helpful to have a minute to collect yourself and try some breathing exercises. Just don’t do this too often, as you don’t want to run away every time you feel stressed.

Practise makes perfect 

Don’t expect to be amazing the first time you meet someone new or go to an event. As Anxiety Canada discuss on their website, “learning to manage anxiety is a lot like exercise – you need to “keep in shape” and practise your skills regularly.” This means repeatedly pushing yourself to do things that scare you, and not avoiding all social situations.

See a professional

If you think you might have social anxiety disorder and are struggling to cope, the best thing you can do is see a professional. Mind UK provides details on their website about how to find a therapist, so that you don’t have to feel stressed about the process.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this has been a useful guide to social anxiety and how to socialise again post-lockdown. The journey will be slightly different for everyone, but the important thing is to take your time and be kind to yourself. 

Not everyone has had the same reaction to lockdown, and equally, everyone will be experiencing different emotions as we leave. However, we all deserve to enjoy seeing friends and family after some time apart, so we hope you can make the most of your new found freedom.

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