Many of us have spent months being isolated socially; hopefully it’ll be sooner than later that we can rejoin our friends and colleagues for in-person gatherings. However for those of you who suffer with social anxiety, this might not be as welcome as it is for others. These days of forced hibernation might have given you the perfect “excuse” to do what you tend to do automatically, which is to say “no” to invitations and remain at home.
Anxiety is the number one mental health issue in the United States. Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness, and there are those that suffer horribly from it. They have panic attacks at the thought of facing a crowd, and at its worst, the anxiety can morph into agoraphobia, an intense fear of leaving your own home. This Covid pandemic has only worsened that anxiety and for some, has made “getting out in public” not only uncomfortable, but terrifying.
Yet apart from an actual diagnosis of social anxiety, now we have another generation becoming more accustomed to connecting with people, while actually sitting on a bed, alone, staring at the glare of their smart phone’s screen. I’ve been doing teletherapy since March of last year and it’s been amazing to me how many of my clients say they’re feeling quite comfortable about it, with even some saying they can be more open. For me, it takes a certain amount of energy to not only convey empathy to them, but to also catch the nuances of non-verbal behavior. I’m working hard to create an environment over a screen where vulnerability is safe.
What’s my point? I’m a therapist and that’s not only my job, but my calling. Yet I don’t think in normal conversations over social media that any of us normally put in that kind of energy. Whereas if you’re sharing a meal, or talking over a glass of wine with a close friend, you can far more easily and readily pick up on more subtle cues that something’s going on. Being physically together brings another kind of energy – and you’re not having to stare at yourself in a Zoom meeting.
I’ve been hearing questions; what kind of lasting mark will Covid-19 and the isolation or social distancing it has mandated have on us or have on our children? Will the art of chit-chat or hanging out be hard to rediscover? Will those with even more moderate social anxiety quietly disappear, as they work virtually from home?
I suspect that once Covid is behind us and many are vaccinated, there’ll be a spectrum of responses. From those that jump in with both feet and joyously give hugs and share food and vow to make the most of every minute to those that will emotionally struggle with either true grief because of losing someone they’d loved to the virus, or because of something that feels like it’s changed forever. They’ll struggle to believe that they’re safe. For some, returning to social gatherings might bring a different form of anxiety – even for those who’d never experienced this before.
What may have been hard pre-pandemic may seem impossible, at least for a while.
An exercise to help confront social anxiety…
There’s an excellent article in the New York Times that will help you with this. And my ideas are very similar to hers.
If you have an unanswered invitation in your email or on your desk, if you’re considering volunteering or joining a club, or if you’ve received Facebook announcements of coming events and not responded… try this.
1) Admit you’re nervous.
I encourage people to talk about talking all the time. So if you get an invitation, or someone calls you to meet for coffee, reveal your nervousness. “I’d love to. And I need you to know that I’m still nervous so I’d like to sit outside.” Take small steps toward where you want to go and don’t expect yourself to look like you’ve got this Covid-thing handled.
2) Look at your anxiety as rationally as you can.
Sit down and write out the reasons you’re anxious. What makes you nervous about going? What are you telling yourself are the reasons you would have difficulty there? How rational are those reasons? If they’re not, can you find a way to laugh at yourself a little, or get a more reasonable perspective? Can you decide to tolerate being nervous? What could you do beforehand — in order to help yourself be less anxious? What could you plan to do when going to an event to keep yourself calm? What options do you have that might help?
The act of writing this out will help you understand yourself better, and is a way of confronting the very situations that you fear. You’re basically using visualization – projecting yourself in the moment and trying to identify common-sense options.And staying as objective as possible. Talk with others and get ideas from them about how they’re handling their own anxieties.
3) Challenge your excuses.
“It’s too much to think about.” “I don’t know who else is going.” “I may not feel like it that day.” These thoughts have been quite rational in the midst of the pandemic. But as time passes, and there are fewer transmissions (the time table of course is still unknown…), how will you begin design your life so that anxiety doesn’t govern you? A realization that doing nothing, not committing to an invitation or chance to be with others – is a response. But a response that will keep your life devoid of true human connection and touch.
Social media may serve as a buffer as you text and tweet, snap and watch YouTube. But it’s not the same as real connection. Challenge your anxiety; work with it and examine its rationality; and accept and verbalize where you are in coping with it.
You don’t have to make the choices anyone else makes. But I hope that whatever steps you take, they’ll move into the real world again -at your own pace.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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