- Over the last year, isolating at home has become our “new normal.”
- Experts say returning to socializing indoors and outdoors can lead to anxiety for many people.
- Taking a gradual approach will help most people ease back into socializing again.
With the number of Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19 increasing steadily each day, the idea of a return to “normalcy” doesn’t feel too far off. But if going back to some of the activities from our pre-pandemic lives feels daunting to you, you’re not alone.
Over the last year, we’ve been continuously adapting to a new reality, living in uncertain times and constant fear of the impact of a deadly virus on our own health and that of our loved ones.
Forced to physically distance from family and friends, many Americans spent the last year in their homes, with video calls becoming the primary way of socializing.
“Humans are creatures of habit, so initially, adjusting to isolating at home was incredibly challenging, but now, a year later, we’re accustomed to the new normal,” explained Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health.
“Our ability to adjust is a double-edged sword because now that we’re used to isolating so much, it’s going to be yet another transition to engage with others socially in person again, both indoors and outdoors.”
Experts say it’s natural to feel anxious and have a degree of social dysfunction after living through a year of a global pandemic.
“Dealing with long periods of isolation can increase social anxiety,” said Leslie Adams, LCPC, CADC, case therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Even those who would consider themselves naturally more extroverted could be struggling.”
Health anxieties around COVID-19 only exacerbate these feelings.
“The message has been, ‘stay away from people,’” Adams explained. “This goes against our very nature, which is wired to be in community.”
Relying mainly on video calls for socializing has also been a strain.
“We have missed out on subtle forms of communicating in the process of ‘surviving’ the pandemic,” Adams said. These include eye contact, facial cues, and body language, which don’t necessarily come across over video and humans rely on to connect with one another.
Once we’re back to in-person social meetings, experts say it will hit us both mentally and physically.
“Being outside our bubble will feel overwhelming because it is a drastic change,” Adams said. “We will notice all the subtle things that we don’t see or hear on video calls. We will feel like we are struggling, like our senses are on overdrive, because they are.”
Anyone who hasn’t been regularly practicing social skills is going to be rusty at this point, experts say.
“However, the introverts and those with a diagnosis of social anxiety or health anxiety in particular have felt ‘comfortable’ for the most part during the lockdown,” she said. “Their challenge is coming now because they will be asked to ‘walk through the fear’ again to increase their resilience.”
Noulas notes that we’re all on a spectrum of introversion to extroversion. Whereas people on the introverted side may have had an easier time with the pandemic in certain ways, extroverts have also struggled.
“The emotional toll the pandemic had on social relationship for extroverts is likely more significant,” she said. “However, they, too, found ways to substitute socializing virtually so they could tolerate the past year.
“Keep in mind, as well, that depending on the climate, many people have been able to maintain social connections outdoors for much of the year versus people living in colder climates.”
Noulas says the best method therapists use to treat people with anxiety is exposure therapy.
“The concept is fairly simple,” she said. “The more we expose ourselves to a situation, the more our mind and body adjusts to it. We do this in a safe way, gradually, with support if needed from others, and we use deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help people successfully complete each exposure.”
Adams also recommends this technique.
“The key will be for us to start back slowly and expect to have a degree of discomfort,” she said. “Keep initial groups small, and build up to larger groups over time. Make the initial interactions short. Gradually increase as your comfort level improves.”
If you live with social anxiety and are having a particularly difficult time with the thought of socializing in person again, Adams suggests planning a reward for doing things that are hard.
“Think of a reward as, ‘if I make a phone call to connect with a friend, go for a walk with a friend, or any other connecting activity, then I will allow myself to do the thing I think I will be missing,’” she said.
This could possibly be a solitary activity like reading, watching TV, going on a nature walk, or taking a warm bath, Adams suggests.
Another piece of advice is to be kind to yourself.
“Keep your expectations low, and be gentle on yourself and others,” Adams said. “Our re-introduction to socializing will be individual and require individual thought and preparation to get back to a comfort level that seems ‘right’ for that person.”
Noulas also recommends taking it slow. If you’re anxious about five social invitations in the same month, just go to two or even one, she says.
“There’s no reason to force yourself into anything, but go to at least one,” Noulas said.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year for everyone. We’re all in the same boat, learning to navigate this new world, so we’ll all benefit from a bit of friendliness as we learn how to crawl, walk and run again.”
She also acknowledges that people with social anxiety, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, and trauma histories may need extra help.
“For those with clinical conditions that impact their ability to function in society, the transition back into ‘the real world’ will be challenging and we strongly recommend they seek professional help to assist with the process,” Noulas said.
If you or a loved one is struggling with significant depression and suicidal thoughts, help is available. You can: