We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Human beings are very social animals. We depend on interactions with other people, and thrive best when in a group. Which is just one of the reasons that the last year has been so difficult for all of us. Being isolated from our family and friends doesn’t come naturally, and over the long term it can actually cause a lot of mental health problems. Well, now that the lockdown restrictions are easing, we are starting to see evidence of those problems coming to the surface, and one that’s at the forefront for many people is social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is, to some extent, what it says on the tin. It’s the fear of social situations. The symptoms can range from mild anxiety, which isn’t pleasant but can be managed, to moderate anxiety that requires more structured coping mechanisms, to a constant and overwhelming fear of social situations that borders on a phobia. Common symptoms include:
- Worrying about everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping.
- Avoiding or worrying a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company and parties.
- Always worrying about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent.
- Finding it difficult to do things when others are watching – you might feel like you’re being watched or judged all the time.
- Fear of being criticised, avoiding eye contact and low self-esteem.
- Suffer physical symptoms, like feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat.
- Having panic attacks, where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, usually only for a few minutes.
It’s a common problem that usually starts during the teenage years, but it can be triggered by certain events or trauma. And while for some people it might get better as they get older, others need to seek treatment to manage the symptoms.
Social Anxiety During Lockdown
When you start to understand what social anxiety is, you can see why lockdown may have caused problems. One of the biggest issues we’re seeing is in people who struggled with social anxiety before the pandemic, but had developed their own coping strategies to deal with it. But after over a year of not needing to use those strategies, they have fallen out of practice, or forgotten what they used to do to cope. This means social situations are even more stressful, as they know there are coping mechanisms that work for them, but they have to remember what they are, or find new ones because the old ones aren’t effective anymore.
The second issue we’re seeing is people who had never experienced social anxiety in the past, but are now struggling with it as lockdown restriction eases. Everyone has been encouraged to shift their behaviours over the last year to actively avoid contact with other people, and social interaction has been very limited for many. Now that we have all adjusted to that way of life, suddenly going out into large crowds again can be overwhelming. And if you’re vulnerable, or have been shielding during the pandemic to protect yourself and family members, a heightened level of anxiety is not only completely understandable, but expected! Studies have shown that the pandemic has sent levels of depression, anxiety and social anxiety skyrocketing, with some experts calling it a ‘mental health crisis’.
Tips for Coping With Social Anxiety Post-Covid
Be Kind to Yourself: The last 16 months have been very difficult for everybody – but even more so if you have social anxiety. Try to remember that you’re not alone, and a lot of people are experiencing this. It’s OK to say no to things that make you feel anxious, or to step out for a break mid-event if you need to. Be kind to yourself, and take things at your own pace.
Be Open With Your Friends: It’s fairly safe to say that no one has been left untouched by this pandemic, and many people who didn’t understand mental illnesses do now. Being open and honest with your friends about how you’re feeling and what you feel anxious about can be incredibly helpful. For one, it mean that you don’t have to hide how you’re feeling, but it also means they can make allowances, and maybe plan meetings that are lower impact for you as we all get used to meeting in person again. And finally, being open means you create a support network of loving people around you, which is always a good thing!
Interrupt the Negative Thoughts: Social anxiety often manifests as negative thoughts when you’re around other people, and it can be difficult to keep them at bay. Your social anxiety might make you think you’re saying the wrong things, asking the wrong questions, talking too much, or that you’re not ‘good enough’ to be part of the conversation. These thoughts aren’t healthy, and often aren’t grounded in reality either – it’s pure anxiety talking. Instead, try interrupting them next time they pipe up. So if your social anxiety is saying ‘you’re not asking the right questions’, respond with ‘There are no right or wrong questions. Showing you’re interested in the conversation by asking questions is good enough’. It’s tough, but positive affirmations work by gradually reprogramming those thoughts, so it’s worth sticking with!
Get Help: If you’re really struggling with social anxiety and it’s impacting your life, it might be beneficial to seek professional help. There are a lot of different treatment options out there for social anxiety of any level, and many of them can be done at home or remotely. Hypnotherapy, EFT, Mindfulness, Meditation and even Yoga can all help you manage social anxiety, so we recommend trying a few things and figuring out what works for you.
If you’re not sure what you want to try, or what might work for you, then we recommend you download the MELP app. MELP is a mental health app that gives you a therapist in your pocket, whenever you need it. It’s packed with tools, tips and techniques designed to help you manage social anxiety and other mental health problems, from the comfort of your own home. MELP brings together the thousands of wellness apps there are out there, and gives you just one app to support your mental health. You can even get discounts on therapies through our virtual clinic, if you feel you need more support. To find out more, get in touch with the team today, or click here to download the MELP app.