The isolation of social distancing may have caused or enhanced feelings of social anxiety. Learn how to identify it and help manage your symptoms.

Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. Get tested. Stay home.

These rules have guided our lives for almost 2 years. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has nearly everyone feeling more anxious than before. Long-term quarantine and a steady stream of video calls may have enhanced existing conditions or created new feelings of social anxiety. As vaccination rates rise and businesses begin to open back up, the thought of returning to the “Before Times” may make you feel uneasy.

You’re not alone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both increased significantly from June 2019 to December 2020, with a higher rate of reported symptoms for women. A lack of in-person interaction became the norm as we waited for things to return to “normal.” Coupled with increased technology use and strict safety guidelines, this isolation became the breeding ground for social anxiety.

People who were diagnosed with anxiety disorders prior to COVID-19 may have noticed increased frequency or severity of their symptoms as the pandemic wore on. Others who never had those concerns before may have started to notice them more and more.

How Can I Calm My Social Anxiety?

Whether or not you previously struggled with social anxiety, avoiding seeing people in person for more than a year can make it stressful to try to get used to socializing again. That’s especially true since COVID is likely to pose somewhat of a threat for quite a while, even as many people are building up immunity through vaccination or having had the virus.

Social anxiety symptoms may include heightened fear of embarrassment or perceived judgment from others along with fear of interacting with others in a group setting. Many people experience these feelings to some degree. But for some, these feelings are so intense that they may cause the person to avoid social interactions altogether.

Regardless of whether your social anxiety is a familiar problem or a new issue, there are things you can do to start overcoming that anxiety and start socializing again. Let’s look at social anxiety, especially how it relates to COVID-19, and what steps you can take to start overcoming it.

What Is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear in social settings. More than just being shy, social anxiety causes people to fear being scrutinized or judged by others. Or, in the context of COVID, it could be an extreme fear of socializing with others due to worry about getting or spreading COVID.

Social anxiety can be crippling. It can affect people’s ability to go to work or school or develop close relationships with people outside their family.

COVID-19 and Anxiety

Nearly four times as many adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic than before it, with more than one-third (35.8%) of American adults reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around one in five (19.1%) adults have an anxiety disorder in a typical year, so COVID-19 is clearly contributing significantly to signs of anxiety.

COVID-19 Social Anxiety

COVID social anxiety has a few different components.

Some people have a fear of going out due to COVID. They may fear getting the disease themselves, or they may be afraid of passing it to somebody vulnerable. It’s natural to be frightened, but you don’t have to stay locked up at home.

Fewer than 1% of COVID transmission occurs outdoors. The few exceptions seem to be crowded areas and close conversations. So going for an outdoor walk with a friend, especially if you both wear masks, presents virtually no chance of transmission – although it may still feel scary if you’re dealing with COVID-19 social anxiety.

Another issue is social anxiety after quarantine. After spending more than a year practicing social distancing, it’s natural to worry about interacting with people out in the real world again. If you’ve only been talking to people through video chats, phone calls, texting, or social media, you may feel anxious about carrying on a conversation in person again.

One other thing to consider is that socializing helps reduce social anxiety. Those who already dealt with social anxiety before COVID haven’tt had opportunities to do exposure therapy and may have increased anxiety as a result.

There are ways to cope.

Here are a few tips to help you manage social anxiety as you start making plans with friends and family:

  • Ease into it. You don’t have to dive into a large gathering when you’ve been alone for a while. Start by meeting with one or two people for a few hours. Gradually increase the time and size of the group as you feel comfortable.
  • Look for the positives. Remember the joy you felt in past interactions and believe these meetings will bring the same feelings.
  • Stay grounded. Consider journaling, meditation, listening to soothing music, or other grounding activities to help relax you before, during, and after a social event.
  • Get moving! Exercise is great for your physical and mental health. Choose an activity you enjoy, like walking, dancing, or playing with a pet.
  • Talk it out. Express your concerns to family and friends when making plans.
  • Stay safe. Check on the CDC’s latest guidance for fully vaccinated people and social gatherings.
  • Be your own advocate. It can take time before you feel comfortable in groups again, and that’s okay. Give yourself permission to take it at your own pace.

If you need to take a break, focus on your breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose to fill your belly and feel your chest rise. Exhale slowly through the nose again, trying to make the exhale last longer than the inhale. This helps you stay in the present and not worry about the “what if’s” of a social interaction.

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