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Coping with Social Anxiety as COVID-19 Restrictions Are Lifted

Restrictions being lifted can be anxiety inducing and stressful and having the tools to cope with these feelings can help socialization feel more accessible and comfortable.

The CDC has announced that fully vaccinated people from COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks and can freely visit with other fully vaccinated individuals. While this freedom is exciting for some, it can feel overwhelming. Now that we are so used to a slow, secluded life, it can feel intimidating to return to “normal.”

We spoke with psychotherapist Dr. Shawn Blue about anxieties around socialization and approaching the lifted restrictions mindfully.

Approach with intentionality

After over a year of building a world around increased isolation and being mostly at home, through work and play, losing this environment can be stressful. According to Dr. Blue, introverts have been thriving in a space they have created without their energy being drained by interacting with others. “It’s created a safety net for a lot of people in the sense that they can feel more comfortable. They have been successful in this ability to shape their world or have more structure around how they live,” says Dr. Blue. However, extroverts have just been missing social interaction, and getting back out into the world will help them build the connections they have been missing.

“In some ways, we feel like we lost control, but people with introverted tendencies also feel like they’ve gained back a sense of control, at least in their environment,” adds Dr. Blue. “Even if it’s just the place that they reside and work in.”

Making moves to approach socializing and coming out of this bubble can be intentional and simple. Many feel they won’t have anything to talk about, so Dr. Blue suggests talking about things that interested you over the past year, like what shows you watched, what recipes you tried, what books you have read, or how you’ve been managing throughout the pandemic.

Coping with change

For some, a silver lining of the pandemic was the increased time together with families, pets, and roommates. Dr. Blue hopes that post-pandemic, we can try to be more intentional about setting aside specific time for family. For example, she says that if you are upset to be spending less time with your dog, spend longer amounts of time with them in dog parks or make time for cuddling on the couch.  Additionally, for family and friends, continue to schedule check-ins and gatherings virtually and/or in person.

Set clear boundaries

Dr. Blue sees the pandemic as trauma and the racial unrest of the past year as secondary trauma. When we experience trauma, it’s important to take care of ourselves and reevaluate our lives after that trauma to see how we can set better personal boundaries.

If opening up to more social interactions is stressful for you because of the fear surrounding COVID-19, you are not alone. Getting the vaccine is the first step to easing this fear, and then, Dr. Blue suggests, taking baby steps to venture out. That could mean eating outdoors at a restaurant before moving to indoor dining or meeting up with a select few friends before going to a small gathering. Be open about your vaccination status, and know that it’s still okay to use precautions that we have used throughout the pandemic.

Emotionally regulate yourself

Dr. Blue says to take an inventory of yourself and do some emotion regulation. She also recommends downloading a meditation app to help ease your anxieties. Further, you should acknowledge your space and inform those that you’re with of your anxieties surrounding being out of your comfort zone.

In terms of feeling confident about spending time with others, continue using social pods or spending time outside. Understand the different safeties and risks around activities when making plans. “It’s normal to feel that we have to validate the difficulties of knowing who is being safe, and it puts a lot of responsibility on someone else,” explains Dr. Blue. “We know what the risk is, so it’s hard to trust others. If you can start with validating feelings, then figure out what boundaries you can put around social situations to feel more trust. Being restrictive about things if you feel uncomfortable means that you won’t be able to enjoy an experience, so maybe you should think about skipping that experience or speaking with a counselor about how to manage this stress.”

Take care of yourself

If you know something will make you anxious or fearful, self-care is needed to replenish yourself afterward. “One of the things that I think people have difficulty with is just giving themselves permission to have self-care,” says Dr. Blue. “They see it as a luxury. They see it as needing to work this hard to gift it to themselves instead of seeing it as necessary. It’s not a gift; it’s a necessity. Self-care should be there to motivate you.”.

Get back to a schedule

For over a year, many things that we have seen as routine have been shifted. Getting back onto a schedule can also help to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. Dr. Blue suggests getting back into a regimented sleep schedule and making sure that you are eating properly. Find self-care options that work well for you; journaling, meditation, mindfulness, or yoga are healthy options. “People can create a routine and space for self-care. This will alleviate many symptoms of anxiety or stress because they have an outlet for all that they are dealing with,” says Dr. Blue.

Check-in with others

Most people have experienced some struggle in the past year. Dr. Blue suggests using the return to “normal” as an opportunity to connect with others in terms of supporting them. Check-in and see how they’re doing, what they’re handling, or other difficulties that they’re experiencing. The pandemic has shown individuals the need for support and the need to be supportive to those in their lives. “We’re all in different ways, struggling around how to figure out what is going to be our new way of navigating. Along with that comes many different feelings that we need to find ways to help manage and validate. Putting something in place to recognize these feelings is going to be what will help us manage as we move along,” says Dr. Blue.

It’s normal to have numerous feelings and to feel weary about changes. We are all dealing with different things, and it’s important to figure out ways to take care of ourselves and get the support of others, too. “We can hope that after the pandemic, we will be more supportive of our friends and family. We can acknowledge that this is so necessary and that we have had an opportunity to engage in those relationships. Hopefully, we can be more intentional in our relationships,” says Dr. Blue.

Dr. Blue stresses that everyone has their own levels of what they are comfortable doing right now, including dining indoors, traveling on an airplane, or what environment they feel safest to meet up with friends. Normalize that there are different feelings that each person has to make their own decisions about what is best for them and what is their type of safety, Dr. Blue says. Acknowledge that your friends may have different views on what they are willing to do in a social setting and talk through how you can work with their restrictions to have positive interactions; doing this will help strengthen your relationships.

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COVID-19, From the Experts