Things are changing quickly.
Economies are opened up – then shut back down. We are all still stuck at home and it can be tough to imagine what comes next. What happens for you as things start to open up again in the world around us?
Are you excited about returning to a more active role in society? Are you anxious about it? Many people are a combination of both.
People with social anxiety are likely to struggle during this time. And, given the high stress levels of the pandemic, you may discover that returning to society gives you symptoms of social anxiety, even if that’s not something you ever experienced in the past.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder is a form of anxiety in which you experience the symptoms around other people. It is an anxiety disorder also called social phobia.
To rise to the level of a diagnosed disorder, the symptoms of social anxiety limit you in some way. In other words, you can’t be the best self you want to be at work, in relationships, or in other social situations because anxiety prevents it.
Social anxiety doesn’t necessarily need to be at the level of diagnosable disorder to challenge your daily life, though. You may develop symptoms of social anxiety, particularly during the return to this “new normal” way of society.
Think about it; this new normal is stressful.
In addition to the usual stressors of going about your daily life, you now need to think about masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. Even if you are excited to return to society, these daily considerations can make it more challenging than it used to be.
Moreover, the break that you’ve taken from society could have allowed social anxiety symptoms to grow. They get worse when you don’t actively deal with them. If you haven’t had to leave your house much, you haven’t had to face those fears. Starting to go out again can make them rear up.
How Does Social Anxiety Manifest?
Social anxiety is anxiety that manifests in symptoms that show up around other people. They may manifest in social situations, at work or school, in public places, and/or when you have to speak in public or speak to an authority figure.
Social anxiety manifests itself in the mental and physical body, through:
- Highly aroused states, a feeling of panic, or a sense that fight-or-flight has kicked in
- Rapid heart rate and/or heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach upset, nausea, lightheadedness
- Trembling, sweating, and/or blushing
- Trouble speaking at all or trouble speaking clearly
If you have social anxiety, then you experience these things due to the stress of social situations. If you leave the situation, the symptoms improve.
These feelings tend to create a pattern of avoidance.
You don’t want to feel the discomfort of social anxiety, therefore you avoid situations that trigger it. The more you avoid those situations, the scarier they are, and the more likely you’ll try to avoid them. Your world gets smaller and smaller and your ability to cope with social anxiety gets worse and worse.
Perhaps you had social anxiety before COVID-19 but you were getting by. The months that you haven’t had to deal with those situations could mean that now your symptoms are worse than before when you do have to go into social situations.
Or maybe you felt a little anxious before but nothing like you feel when you think about having to return to the world after this time off, in the face of a pandemic.
How to Treat Social Anxiety Disorder
The only way to treat anxiety is to face it head-on. However, this is obviously easier said than done. Therapy helps by providing you a safe space and established techniques for managing the way that you feel.
One of the things that has come out of the shelter-in-place experience is that more and more people are making use of online therapy. Research shows that this is an effective treatment for a variety of issues, including the use of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which is one common treatment for anxiety.
In ERP, you learn how to safely face for your fears. For example, you begin to go out into situations that trigger your social anxiety, utilizing the tools of the therapy to manage your symptoms and overcome the anxiety.
Of course, this isn’t the only treatment for social anxiety disorder. There are several other effective treatments. Traditional talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other methods can all help you in managing the symptoms of social anxiety. Depending on the therapy you choose, you might practice deep breathing and other grounding techniques, learn new social skills through role playing, or work on deeper insight into your anxiety.
Whatever therapy you choose, it often helps to talk to a mental health professional who understands people with social anxiety.
In some cases, people use medication (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, anti anxiety medications, or beta blockers) in combination with therapy to work through the most challenging aspects of social anxiety. People also use complementary treatments such as yoga, mindfulness practice, and/or nutrition changes. Your therapist, and/or doctor, can assist you in determining the treatment best suited to your unique needs.