Feeling a little apprehensive about seeing friends and family face-to-face again after a year of lockdowns, isolation and Zoom-based socialising is only normal. Not only are we having to get used to simply being around people again, but after so much time spent at home, our conversational skills are a little out of practice, too.
There are varying degrees of social anxiety, and it’s important not to trivialise the condition, which can be incredibly debilitating for some of who suffer from it.
However, if you’re finding social situations to be incredibly anxiety-inducing, worry about seeing people long in advance of the actual event or find yourself over-analysing everything you say during or after an interaction, then it can be a useful term to use, even if you don’t go about seeking an official diagnosis.
“Although most people would agree easing of lockdown is positive, it can also be a cause of apprehension,” explains Gemma Leigh Roberts, a chartered psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.
“Some people will experience fear of the unknown and worry about what the new normal will look like. Others will worry about how busy life will become again and how they’ll fit in a social life and activities. Some people will find it hard to come back from social distancing and reintegrating back into a social world might take some work.
“And, of course, there is still the fear of illness and even death – and while the risk of both may have reduced, there may still be strong memories that can evoke anxiety.”
While it’s important to seek help from your GP if your social anxiety is having a big impact on your life, there are some things you can do to ease your anxiety about seeing people again.
With this in mind, we asked Roberts to share her five top tips for dealing with social anxiety as you get back to seeing friends IRL. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Focus on relaxation techniques such as breathing
“There are apps to help with this (and the Apple watch has a one-minute breathing application which can be useful). It can be as simple as setting a timer for one minute and breathing in sets of four, so breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, breathe out for four and hold for four. Calming your body physically can help to calm you psychologically.”
2. Take small steps
“You don’t have to go from 0-100 as we come out of lockdown; break your goals down into small steps. Rather than feeling like you need to go to a busy bar or coffee shop (when they open) or navigate public transport in rush hour, maybe take a stroll to a shop and interact with one person there or make a trip on public transport when it’s quieter on the weekend.”
She continues: “If you’re worried about being overwhelmed interacting with your big team back in the office, try to plan more intimate catch-ups before – maybe a coffee (in person or virtual) with one or two members of your team.”
3. Celebrate small wins
“No matter how small the goal seems, if you’ve reached it, celebrate it. If you made it to a shop when you felt uncomfortable, or you braved a train when you could’ve driven somewhere, give yourself a huge pat on the back. Small achievements will help to pave the way as you move towards a more social interaction.”
4. Reward yourself
“When you stick to the tasks you’ve set yourself, give yourself a reward. This could be anything from a new outfit from the shop you visited, a nice coffee or lunch in a café you visited, to booking a holiday.”
5. Make one change at a time
“You don’t have to go from living in a cocoon to being a social butterfly; just focus on one area you want to tackle at a time. Maybe you want to see your friends or family. Or perhaps you want to get comfortable going into an office again. You can do one at a time, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.”
While confronting your social anxiety and challenging yourself to see friends and family again can feel overwhelming, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone.
You’ve likely been through a lot over the last year, so if getting back to ‘normal’ takes a little longer than expected, then that’s OK.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com for confidential support.