Let’s be real: Social anxiety was hard enough before the pandemic. Now after more than a year at home, the idea of meeting up with others can be intimidating.
What if you run out of things to say and there’s awkward silence? How will you know if others like you and are having a good time? And, seriously, what should you be doing with your hands?
If social activities make you feel uneasy, try these coping tips.
What is the difference between mild social anxiety and social anxiety disorder?
First things first: Most people experience some social anxiety now and then.
“I think all of us experience social anxiety in some shape or form,” says Lori Zoellner, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. “We all have times where we feel a degree of social threat or a perceived danger that we’re going to do or say something embarrassing, be rejected or lose something in some shape or form.”
This anxiety might pop up when you have a job interview, speak publicly or meet someone important to you. (Remember the first time you met your SO’s parents? Yeah, that feeling.) It can also look like not wanting others to see you eat — including turning off your video during online meetings — or having a nervous bladder in public restrooms.
So, when does this anxiety tip into the realm of social anxiety disorder?
Zoellner says social anxiety disorder is defined by three main factors: intensity, pervasiveness and functional impairment.
“We tend to think of social anxiety disorders as when that fear becomes broader and more generalized. Meaning, it’s not just one or two situations that come up occasionally but there’s a range of people or a range of situations where you feel socially anxious,” she explains.
Put simply, if your anxiousness is stopping you from engaging in activities you enjoy or pursuing your goals — for example, if you are no longer willing to hang out with friends or attend a job interview — then you are likely dealing with social anxiety disorder.
What causes social anxiety and social anxiety disorder?
If you know the root cause of social anxiety then you’ll be able to stop it before it starts, right? Well, it’s not quite so simple.
Your body can’t differentiate between different types of threats, so it responds to a perceived social threat in the same way it was programmed to respond to a physical threat: by triggering your fight or flight response.
This means your body releases hormones to increase your heart rate, oxygenate your blood and tense your muscles, which is why new, stressful social situations make your heart pound, jaw clench and shoulders climb up to your ears.
The problem is, it’s not helpful to fight or flee from a social situation. So, what can you do?
How can you cope with and relieve social anxiety?
While your body might respond to social situations with an influx of hormones, there are ways to bring yourself back down, relax your body and even enjoy the moment.
Give yourself and others grace
“I think the first piece to remember is we’re all a little rusty,” Zoellner says.
It’s been a minute since we’ve all socialized and, put bluntly, we’re out of practice.
Allow space for yourself and others to be a little awkward at times as we all figure out how to go about socializing again. Zoellner notes that socializing is a learned behavior, like riding a bike, so it will eventually come back to us.
In the meantime, try to let go of your expectations of what socializing “should” look like. Engaging in activities may feel different than it did before the pandemic, and that’s OK.
Normalize and name the anxiety
Naming what is going on in your body can help you recognize social anxiety, which makes it easier to cope.
When you feel butterflies in your belly or your mind goes blank, you can remind yourself this is your body’s response to a perceived threat. It also helps to know that it will pass once the hormones run their course and your body returns to its baseline state.
Beyond normalizing this experience for yourself, it can be powerful to express what you’re going through in the moment.
“I’m struck with how hard it is to say to someone you are with that you are feeling socially anxious, but it doesn’t hurt to disclose that. Chances are, the other person is feeling that too,” Zoellner says.
Work on being willing to name what you’re feeling, even if that’s saying you’re nervous or you aren’t sure what to say. This honesty means you don’t have to pretend to be perfect, which can pop the tension and make it easier to engage with the other person. Plus, it allows them to be more genuine and human in the interaction, too.
Ask yourself these two questions
Zoellner recommends asking yourself two questions to help lessen social anxiety.
First: "What are you afraid of?” Then: “So what?”
Addressing these questions helps stop anxious thoughts from spinning down the road of “what ifs” or “what might bes.” Instead, you are able to see the situation for what it is.
“We talk about unhelpful anxiety being like a paper tiger. When you look at it from a distance it looks like a tiger but then when you start getting into it you realize it’s not a real threat; it’s not dangerous,” Zoellner says.
Say you’re anxious about going to a picnic with some friends. Your anxiety might be telling you that you’ll mess up and embarrass yourself in front of strangers or negatively affect how your friends think of you. But asking Zoellner’s questions helps challenge this anxious voice.
What are you afraid of? Saying the wrong thing, looking silly or being judged. Well, so what? What would happen if you said the wrong thing or looked like a fool?
Maybe you’ll feel awkward for a moment, but then you’ll move on to the next topic or activity. If you're with strangers, they’ll likely not notice, care or remember. And if these folks are your friends, they won’t care if you do something embarrassing. They’re excited to see you — and they don’t need, want or expect you to be perfect.
(So, that picnic panic? Turns out it was a paper tiger.)
Stay in the situation
Remember how your fight or flight response might be telling you to flee? It turns out it’s best to ignore this impulse (as well as any urges to fight, for what we hope are obvious reasons).
“It’s tough, but we often say to folks that staying in a situation is better than trying to escape it,” Zoellner says.
Try to tolerate a level of anxiousness in a social activity instead of escaping to the bathroom, edge of the room or declining an invitation altogether. If your anxiety is feeling overwhelming and you need remove yourself from a social situation for a minute, Zoellner says this is OK. Give yourself some slack and take a moment to regain your composure, then try to go back if possible.
“Tell yourself, ‘I’m anxious and it feels awful, but I know what this is and if I stick with it the anxiety is going to go down,’” Zoellner says.
To get you through the initial wave, you can practice mindfulness, which will help you calm down your body and be more present in the moment. (Though, it’s important to note if you are having a full-blown panic attack, this can be difficult, so be gentle with yourself and how you’re feeling.)
You can also use Zoellner’s two questions or share with the person you’re with that you’re feeling a little anxious.
Along with the methods you can use to help yourself, there are also plenty of people who want to support you.
If you are struggling to return to social activities, reach out to your loved ones or seek additional help from a mental health expert. Especially if social anxiety is preventing you from going about your daily life, a therapist can use evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or group-based CBT to help you move through that anxiety.
“One thing we all need to do is to keep on trying. There is a risk for those who’ve been isolated to stay isolated, and some of that is just the courage and persistence to try social activities again,” Zoellner says. “These are things all of us are going to need.”