As the news that lockdown restrictions are easing splashes up on my TV while I brush my teeth in the morning, I can’t help but feel a tiny pang of dread at the thought of going to bars, cafes, and other ‘real-life’ places again.
Of course, part of me is elated at the thought of a renewed social life and an economy on the road to recovery, but as I look around my tiny lounge room I also think ‘do I really want to venture out of this safe little space?’
I grab my phone, which has never been used as much as it has in the last couple of months – FaceTimes, text messages, recipes for sourdough – and I timidly broach the subject with my friend, trying to articulate my feelings in a text message.
“I’m excited!” I tell her, followed by “but I’m kinda worried too…” with a few emojis thrown in.
She gets it. She tells me what I’m feeling is probably some social anxiety.
Before social distancing and lockdown restrictions, I never had a problem squeezing myself through a crowd at a busy bar or sitting on a communal bench at a cafe next to a group of strangers.
These days, I’ve become used to the quiet hum of my fridge while I work from home and sip an instant coffee. But the thought of going back into the office and running at full capacity sets off a slight panic within me.
Turns out I’m not alone. In the days that follow, Facebook and Instagram throw up a myriad of posts and memes from friends who are also grappling with the thought of heading back out into the world.
Kerry Athanasiadis, a psychologist and practice director at Be You Psychology & Counselling, said even if you’ve never struggled with social anxiety before, you may experience symptoms as a result of the current situation.
So, what is social anxiety?
“Social anxiety involves the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, defectiveness, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation and even depression,” Athanasiadis said.
People can feel some or all of these symptoms, to varying degrees.
Here are some tips on how to cope with social anxiety:
There’s no denying 2020 has been one heck of a year so far, so let’s acknowledge that even with lockdown restrictions easing, it might not feel ‘normal’ for a while.
Even if you think your social anxiety isn’t warranted or if someone is experiencing it worse than you, it’s vital to acknowledge it.
“It’s important that we normalise it and acknowledge the impact the current situation with COVID-19 is having on people,” Athanasiadis said.
Don’t avoid being social
The overriding message to ‘stay home’ has been paramount in the early phase of the pandemic but this can increase anxiety at the thought of engaging in social interactions as restrictions ease.
Athanasiadis stresses that “it’s OK to take your time with going back to face-to-face interactions”, but it’s important not to avoid them altogether.
“Avoidance behaviours tend to reinforce social anxiety symptoms,” she said.
Less is more
Ditch the FOMO and let yourself ease back into your social calendar. In other words, start small.
“It’s important not to throw yourself into the deep end and overwhelm yourself. Get to know what you’re going to be comfortable with and tune in to your own needs,” Athanasiadis said.
She also suggests a “graded exposure plan” to slowly reintroduce more face-to-face interactions.
Perhaps you could start with a coffee catch up in quieter pockets of your neighbourhood, a small gathering at a friend’s house, or slowly integrating back into the physical workplace.
Seeking help is arguably the most important step to take if you are experiencing symptoms of social anxiety.
Speaking to a friend or a family member can be beneficial, but Athanasiadis also recommends making an appointment with your GP or seeing a psychologist. And the good news is, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Athanasiadis suggests using Medicare Telehealth, an initiative that allows Australians to claim Medicare rebates if they consult with a psychologist via phone or video for up to 10 sessions per calendar year.
And if it’s not you experiencing social anxiety and perhaps it’s a friend or family member, Athanasiadis said: “listen and hold space for their concerns in a non-judgmental way”.