The pandemic has changed how we socialize and gather with friends, family and colleagues. For some, more time at home was welcome relief from social situations. But even those who may have once described themselves as extroverts may be experiencing some apprehension at the thought of regularly seeing people in groups again.
If the idea of getting together with others has you feeling uneasy, Natalie Franz, a registered psychologist at TELUS Health Care Centres in Vancouver, has some advice. In order to properly address social anxiety, it’s important to first understand what it is.
What is social anxiety?
Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, people crave being connected to others in some capacity. “Our worst fear is not to be connected with people, or to be unlovable,” says Franz. This fear is the root of where social anxiety comes from.
“Social anxiety is a persistent fear of negative judgment from others,” says Franz. “Social situations become anxiety inducing because you feel as though people may find you lacking in some way. It’s the fear of being evaluated negatively, which comes when we don’t immediately know what others are thinking of us.”
Franz says this fear can be strong, and ultimately leads to avoidance behaviour (in other words, avoiding social situations altogether), which can further erode social skills.
It becomes a clinical problem when it actively impacts a person’s life - for example, feeling too scared to go to work or school, eating in front of others, or using public washrooms. Even though the belief of negative judgment from others may be completely false, the fear of it as a possibility can cause people to feel as though they simply prefer staying at home. Franz says it’s important to be able to distinguish between whether this is actually a preference, or whether someone is in fact avoiding the situation because it’s uncomfortable.
What are the signs of social anxiety?
According to Franz, social anxiety, like other types of anxiety, can manifest in one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour, as well as in physical symptoms. We might believe others think we are boring, feel embarrassed, and avoid group events. Ruminating about social events in a negative way after they occur is also a sign of social anxiety.
Physical symptoms may include feeling physically sick in anticipation of a social event. A racing heart, sweaty hands, dry mouth and nausea are signs of social anxiety - all of which, says Franz, are part of the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response.
How the pandemic changed social anxiety
Many people who didn’t experience social anxiety before may be experiencing it now. If you would have once described yourself as an extrovert, but now are less inclined to host or attend social events, you aren’t alone. It is, in part, a matter of falling out of the routine of being social.
“Lockdowns and online working have led to people becoming less habituated with being around others,” Franz says. “We’ve fallen out of the habit of hosting get-togethers, and as a result may find them more stressful than they were before. There’s more lethargy, more inertia when it comes to making these plans.”
Self-described extroverts that are now experiencing social anxiety may in fact have had underlying anxiety before. But because in the past, social events were a bigger part of their routine, they may not have linked this anxiety specifically to socializing.
“Some people are finding it easier to connect in person,” Franz says. “But others are finding it more awkward and disconcerting. Often, they may have been a little more at risk of having anxiety before.”
Franz also notes that some anxiety associated with going to a social event or back to the office may in fact be COVID related. “We became so accustomed to standing apart, not hugging, and avoiding big groups,” Franz reflects. “Sometimes what may come across as social anxiety may actually be a fear of getting or transmitting COVID.”
How to manage social anxiety
If you feel anxious at the thought of going back to the office, school or regular social events, there are ways to help manage it. First, Franz says that it’s important to evaluate and even challenge your own thoughts if you are feeling nervous about a social situation.
“Most of us trust our thoughts implicitly, but they aren’t always true,” she says. “Just because you are having a negative thought, doesn’t mean the situation is objectively negative. Ask yourself if there is actual evidence for the thought you’re having. For example, “‘where is the evidence that everyone at the party didn’t like me?’”
Before going to an event, imagine it playing out. Imagine being there, asking questions of others, having conversations. Franz says it’s important to ask yourself in advance how you anticipate feeling, and what is your optimal way of handling those feelings.
If you find yourself feeling anxious while at a social gathering, there are a couple things you can do:
- Take deep calming breaths. This helps relax the body and sends a message to the brain that everything is okay.
- Be in the moment and focus on your senses. What can you see, smell, feel? This can help you feel more grounded.
Starting off small and socializing with just one or two other people can also be a good way to transition into more regular social interactions with larger groups. Start with something where success is almost impossible to avoid - like a coffee date with a close friend. Finding the right ‘next step’ and practicing it until it becomes routine may help.
How can you support someone else with social anxiety?
Even if you may not be experiencing social anxiety yourself, you may know someone who is. While sometimes well-intentioned, saying things like “it’s not a big deal, don’t worry!” can come across as dismissive or alienating to someone experiencing any kind of anxiety.
Instead, acknowledge how they are feeling. Say something like “I noticed you’re stressed. How can I help?” If you can go to the event with them, even better.
“Being with trusted people helps regulate our physiology,” Franz says. “Research1 shows this. We feel braver with trusted others than we do on our own.”
You may also be able to help someone by being a reality check for them if they are ruminating after a social event, and reassuring them that no one noticed something they may be worrying about. If you’ve had an open dialogue about anxiety, and the person you are supporting has agreed to discuss it with you, you may ask them “Is it possible that anxiety is what is making you think that about the party?”
“It’s important to separate social anxiety from the individual experiencing it. Make anxiety the problem, not the person,” Franz says. “And don’t forget to celebrate the person’s efforts when they do something outside of their comfort zone.”
When to seek support
Avoiding certain social interactions can be a self-protective reflex. But our efforts to defend ourselves against anxiety can interfere with being able to live a full life.
“If you feel scared to go to work or school, if you’re actively avoiding social situations - it may be worthwhile to seek support,” Franz says.
In her clinical experience, she’s encountered individuals who feel guilty about their social anxiety. She emphasizes that more often than not, these people are in fact highly sensitive, creative and thoughtful.
“Often the people who are the most socially anxious are sensitive individuals who are really dialed in to how others may be thinking and feeling,” she says. “Those qualities are something to celebrate too. It’s just a matter of finding some skills to cope, and training an imaginative mind to not jump to a negative conclusion.”
Mental health services are available from TELUS Health
Natalie Franz is one of many dedicated mental health professionals working on the TELUS Health team for the TELUS Health Care Centres, where psychology and counseling services are available both in-person and virtually in British Columbia and Alberta. Mental health counseling is also available virtually through TELUS Health MyCare in Alberta, BC, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Quebec. Additionally TELUS Health Virtual Care, our virtual care service offered by employers for employees, offers mental health support and primary care, and may be available to you through your employer.
This article was published on May 27, 2022. Content was created for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have or for any medical assistance you may need.
The Science of Interpersonal Trust - University of South Florida. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2022, from https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1573&context=mhlp_facpub