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Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety

To celebrate our new living arrangement, my partner and I organise a dinner party. We each decide to invite two guests who don’t know each other so well. I make the conscious choice of extending one of my invitations to my most ‘plastic’ friend. And I do not mean this in the way of superficial or materialistically oriented, rather, she is my most socially adaptable friend. She can form a bond with any person. On the evening of the dinner party, however, when my dear friend walks in the door, I am not as instantly soothed by her company as I had envisioned I would be. ‘What are you doing?’, I ask her quietly as she stands lurking, stationary, in the doorway. This friend was someone who could naturally fill any uncomfortable silences, telling memorable stories and instigating laughter when I failed to. However, the instant she arrived, I felt that something was not quite right.

Feeling Inadequate and Awkward Since the Pandemic

At the dinner table, my friend’s surprising behaviour continued. She squirmed constantly on the edge of her chair and, when she did speak, she did so quietly and too quickly for others to discern the contents of her speech. I had never observed my friend like this, seeming intimidated and uncomfortable to the extent of wanting to leave her own skin.

At the end of the night, with the other guests gone, she seemed to finally return to her relaxed and outgoing self. I enquired about her disposition throughout the night and was surprised to hear her acknowledge it outright. Since we emerged from COVID, she says she has developed a series of new insecurities. She explains that she has spent, and continues to spend, a lot of time comparing herself to others online and feels increasingly inadequate in company. She explains that she was initially accepting of these feelings when they appeared after COVID, attributing them to repercussions from the pandemic isolation. Though now, many months later, she isn’t so sure. If anything, she says, it’s become much worse.

Isn’t it Common?

What my friend had described to me sounded like Social Anxiety Disorder, in which the majority of anxious symptoms manifest in, or relate to social situations and interactions. Social anxiety is a common experience, in fact, it is an adaptive response for humans to have in social situations. The adrenaline associated with anxiety can be stimulating and even useful as it facilitates engagement and contribution to the social environment. However, like many forms of anxiety, social anxiety exists on a spectrum of intensity. For some, social anxiety quickly surpasses stimulating or useful levels and can become debilitating to a point of significant distress.

More severe social anxiety may be evident when the anxiety is triggered by everyday interactions, and when the anxiety is out of proportion to the situation. For example, someone with adaptive social anxiety may experience an elevated heart rate, butterflies, or rumination over possible outcomes, prior to asking someone out on a date; whereas a person with social anxiety disorder may experience these physiological and psychological symptoms over something more routine like ordering a coffee at a café. For someone with social anxiety disorder, the anxiety is so profound, they will often avoid the situation altogether.

COVID Was a Risk Factor for Everyone

Social anxiety disorder stems from a fear of being negatively evaluated, scrutinized, or humiliated in public. There are several conditions that can make someone more or less vulnerable to developing social anxiety, such as your genetics, and the environment you were raised in. There are also several risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a social anxiety disorder. These include but are not limited to family history; negative developmental experiences (e.g., bullying or trauma); changing work or social demands; temperament; relocation to a new place; having other mental or physical conditions that are perceived to elicit attention. One risk factor we have all been exposed to recently, is the one my dear friend referred to on the couch that night: the profound social isolation imposed by the global pandemic. While isolation saw us living in grossly unnatural social conditions, we were subject to these rules for long enough that they became the norm. The majority of us did not have an opportunity to practice our social skills or prove our negative self-evaluations wrong. Therefore, it seems a heightened level of social anxiety was a common feeling after the pandemic.

Noticing the Signs of Social Anxiety

If some of this resonates with you, but you’re still unsure if you have reason to be concerned, you might like to speak to someone (friend or professional) to discuss your experience further. In the meantime, it can be helpful to familiarise yourself with some of the different aspects of social anxiety disorder, including emotional, behavioural, and physical symptoms:

  • Emotional symptoms: Negative self-evaluations and negative beliefs about oneself and social situations.
  • Behavioural symptoms: Avoidance of activating environments and interpersonal interactions, as well as excessive rumination and over-analysis of social events.
  • Physical symptoms: Blushing, trembling, sweating, nausea, elevated heart rate, dizziness, and muscle tension.

It’s a vicious reinforcement cycle, whereby the avoidant behaviours may temporarily alleviate the anxiety, but in the long run, strengthen the psychological symptoms (such as unhelpful beliefs of being incompetent in social environments). Therefore, therapeutic support is important for those experiencing significant social anxiety. And the good news is, it is an anxiety disorder that responds incredibly well to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – a treatment offered by all our psychologists here at Peaceful Mind Psychology.

What is at the Heart of it?

When it comes to alleviating or treating social anxiety, it is important to understand that social anxiety is commonly driven by the belief that other people hold very high expectations of you and that their positive evaluation of you is contingent on meeting this standard. This is false! Once you recognise this, you can start to undo the thoughts and behaviours attached to this core belief. When I find myself getting flustered and tongue-tied at a dinner party, or fretting over how my face feels when I’m listening to someone else speak, I try to remind myself of the following things:

Practice being present.

If you’re afflicted by social anxiety, you may tend to get distracted by analysing and evaluating social interactions and your performance as they are unfolding. This is extremely counterproductive as it prevents a natural social exchange and genuine connection. Cognitive psychologists describe our attentional capacity as a spotlight, that we can control. When you feel yourself becoming anxious and ruminating on how you come across, actively shift the spotlight from yourself to the other person. In shifting your focus to the other person and away from yourself, you are opening the opportunity to bond.

Embrace your faux pas.

Humans crave humanity. Nobody wants to talk to someone who is actually ‘perfect’ – that would be uncomfortable, intimidating and at best, boring! So the next time you’re going into a social situation you’re anxious about, instead of thinking ‘I hope I don’t reveal this’, try to see the mistake or flaw as a piece of humanity that the other person will appreciate. Why? It puts them at ease about their own flaws because, I hate to say it, but we all have them. There is no perfect human!

Give yourself credit.

Yes you, as you are only as different and flawed as the extrovert next door. Embrace that your shy and timid nature is a fundamental and in fact wonderful, interesting part of you, just as much as your blue eyes, black hair, or slighter bigger left foot. You may find yourself envying the extrovert and have your sights set on ridding yourself of social anxiety completely, but this is an unrealistic and unhelpful standard. While it is important to challenge your social anxiety and not let fear dictate your social life, it is also very okay to say ‘no’ sometimes if you prefer a night in every now and then. Be gentle with yourself on the journey and respect your own needs and wants.

If you’d like to learn more about how to manage social anxiety, you can read our other blog posts on this topic here, and here.