Social anxiety: how to cope following covid-19

As people we are wired to connect, but some with social anxiety live with a persistent and intense fear of embarrassment, humiliation or rejection from others. As many as 12 per cent of us may experience this in our lifetime, often with depression, panic, generalised anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and substance misuse as a coping strategy. People with social anxiety tend to endure thoughts of being judged negatively by others before, during and after social interactions. There is usually a focus inward on one’s own speech and how they come across along with discomfort and wanting to avoid social contact. Social anxiety can negatively impact relationships, school and work performance, limit hobbies outside of the home, and can lead to a sense of shame and low self-esteem.

During the covid-19 pandemic, many people have felt isolated, worried about finances/health/access to food and supplies, and some have experienced illness and loss. We have all had to change our behaviour, been advised to socially distance from people outside of our household and asked to wear masks when in public spaces. As we re-enter society with a ‘new normal’, some of us will feel out of practice socialising and will just need opportunities to practice and go easy on ourselves as we adjust. Some will need to transition from virtual to in-person communication with the challenges that come along with hearing/being understood wearing masks and not being able to read facial expressions fully or lip read.

Woman with protective face mask

But what does this mean for those who are socially anxious? Despite craving social connection like anyone else, the encouraged avoidance of others may have been a welcome relief initially. But avoiding others and spending more time alone for longer periods will likely have led to feeling out of practice communicating and difficulty adjusting, particularly if making phone and videocalls was so challenging that this was also avoided during lockdown. While we are all having to practice communicating slightly differently and PPE makes this harder, with this comes a heightened sense of uncertainty in social interaction, which may feel harder for socially anxious people. Because of the nature of covid-19, there is increased anxiety and suspicion of others, but combine this with thoughts of being judged for our opinions, decisions and behaviour, and the perceived threat from others increases.

Managing social anxiety

1. Maintain social connections

Try to remember that we as a society have been through traumatic and challenging times, and we all risk rejection and judgement every time we connect and communicate with others. Do the best you can to connect in a way that feels realistic and safe for you and start small. For example, connect on social media, make small talk with a shop assistant, meet a friend for a socially distanced chat or walk.

2. Notice the negative thoughts and let them pass

We have evolved to focus on behaviours and thoughts that help protect us, though it cannot differentiate real from imagined threats. Notice the thoughts and thank them for showing up, but note that there is no danger here. Remember that we can’t know what others are thinking unless we ask – the way you feel is not the way in which you are perceived by others. Try to imagine placing the judgemental thoughts on leaves on a gently flowing stream.

3. Practice self-compassion

If you’re not feeling comfortable enough to engage socially yet, that’s okay – some people may be feeling more afraid than others of accepting social invitations. Go easy and talk to yourself kindly as you would do a friend who was struggling.

4. Build your resilience

Try to limit watching or reading the news. Find an enjoyable form of exercise, create a daily routine, prioritise sleep, and cut out caffeine (as this can triggers symptoms mimicking anxiety).

5. Seek help if needed

If your social anxiety feels unmanageable or is impacting greatly on your life, seek out a psychologist via your local NHS wellbeing service or source one privately. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can teach more flexible ways of responding to anxiety.

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This article was published on 4th September 2020.

Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire: drlaurakeyes.com
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