I’ve been hearing it from my clients, young and old. I’ve seen it in my teenage daughters. I’ve even felt it myself: Social anxiety that simply was not there prior to 2020. Or at least, it wasn’t this bad. As mask mandates fall to the wayside, and concerts, parties and family gatherings ramp up, many of us are noticing a strange, gut-level reluctance to engage. Why is this happening? And what can we do to get over it? For that matter, should we try to get over it? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)
First, let’s discuss why your social anxiety might be higher than it was pre-pandemic. For more than two years, our brains have been on the receiving end of a near-constant message that people = danger. Going to large gatherings might kill you. Going to the grocery store could land you in the hospital. Throwing a birthday party may not harm the birthday kiddo, but it could very well kill Grandma and Grandpa. We are wired to avoid danger, and the best way to do that, for a significant chunk of time now, has been to avoid people. We can’t see the virus, so our brains have no way of knowing which people are a source of contagion and which ones are not. The best strategy to keep ourselves safe, therefore, has been to stay home and avoid everyone. And since the virus is invisible, we have no obvious sign that the coast is clear; we’re just being told it’s fine to go out now - well, sort of. Quite frankly, the lack of clear guidance or consensus on what is safe and what is not is not helping us manage our anxiety.
To compound our threat-induced anxiety, most of us are way out of practice when it comes to keeping an active social calendar. After staying put for the better part of two years, social inertia (and, for some of us, inertia in general) has taken hold. It can feel effortful to make plans with a friend, or to gear up for a concert, and the longer you’ve gone without doing any of that, the harder it will be initially. If you have ever established a regular exercise routine, you know that going from zero exercise to regular exercise is way harder than maintaining an established routine. Same goes with socializing. And similar to exercise, the more socially averse you were before the pandemic, the harder it will be to convince yourself it’s worth the effort.
But getting back out there is worth the effort. You see, we are not only wired to avoid danger, we are also wired to connect with others. Isolation is stressful, even if we don’t always notice the toll it’s taking. Research has shown time and time again that social isolation increases our risk for a whole range of mental and physical illnesses, including depression, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s. And while single individuals have been hit particularly hard by pandemic-induced isolation, many marriages struggled as well, as couples found themselves trying to rely on one other person to meet most or all of their social and emotional needs. In short, we need to get out of the house and spend time with people other than our immediate family, as much as our gut may be telling us to stay home.
So how do we combat the strong urge to stay home? Here are a few suggestions:
If, after giving the above strategies a try, you find you are still struggling to get back on the social horse, talk to a therapist about your anxiety. They can teach you some anxiety-busting techniques to deploy in social situations and elsewhere. Going to your therapist’s office on a regular basis can even be a great first step toward your goal of transitioning from virtual interactions back to the real deal.
Dr. Terri Bly is a licensed clinical psychologist at Ellie Mental Health in Mendota Heights, where she helps adolescents, adults, couples and families overcome challenges and remove obstacles using a values-based, whole-body approach to mental health. Outside of work, Dr. Bly is passionate about traveling, theatre, music and parenting her two teenage daughters.