I don’t know about all of you, but I’m a naturally anxious person. After over a year in this pandemic, the mere suggestion of going out doesn’t just exhaust me—I have come to sincerely and intensely dread it. The thought of having to get dressed in actual clothes; hear "outside" noises (loud buses and the like); be near people—my energy is depleted before I can even put on pants. I've even been dragging my heels when it comes to making plans with friends and family, out of sheer reluctance to get out of my quiet, safe, and unstressful bubble.
For the person with anxiety, going outside and dealing with people can be a tall order, especially when we can be so sensitive to stimulation. That, and there's a variant of the virus lurking. With remote working, grocery delivery, and stay-at-home orders, the most socially anxious among us were given some relief. But even with new mask mandates (again), there's still the inevitable promise of increased social interaction and expectations. And to be honest, it feels heavier than I remember pre-pandemic.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly says if you’re feeling this way, you’re probably experiencing "post-Covid anxiety," even though we're nowhere near "post-pandemic" life, as it were. If you’re feeling this way, know you’re not alone. To help, we've consulted experts for advice on how to get back into the swing of things—once that becomes a reality. For now, we're not quite there yet. So, read this and tuck it away for a time when Delta variants, masks, and the turbulence of life in this pandemic are a mere memory.
Meet the Expert
According to Manly, it’s absolutely possible and natural for social anxiety to be exacerbated as we enter a different phase of this pandemic. "Many people who suffer from social anxiety experienced the benefit of far less anxiety during the pandemic," she explains. "With social restrictions in place, there were fewer social interactions; the decrease in both social opportunities and expectations to interact naturally brought greater calm to those experiencing social anxiety. As that begins to change, it may trigger an increase in social anxiety."
It’s also possible your social anxiety levels are higher due to a lowered capacity of social interaction. Think about it like this: Your tolerance for social interaction is like a muscle. Without consistent activation and exercise, a muscle will atrophy over time. It’s possible because you’ve had less face-to-face social interaction for the last 18 months, your accumulated tolerance for social interaction has diminished. Doing things that felt easy before the pandemic (like getting groceries or going to the post office) can suddenly feel exhausting. You're just out of socializing shape.
"The capacity for social interaction can surely decrease after a protracted period of isolation,” Manly confirms. “A person’s ability to communicate with others—even basics—can feel unpolished and awkward. And, of course, after our long period of hibernation, introverts may have become even more accustomed to solitary life. Although extroverts may feel taxed as they get back into the swing of social interactions, introverts can experience significant mental and emotional strain."
If you’re an anxious introvert, you’re probably relieved to know your feelings are not unfounded. But it is possible to start creating a tolerance for social interaction again. The most important part of building up your stamina is to move at a pace that feels right for you—especially in light of how chaotic these times continue to be. “Regardless of what others may be doing, it’s essential we slow down and take our mental and emotional temperature before moving back into [safe] social interactions,” she emphasizes. “When we allow the psyche to become acclimated at a pace that feels personally appropriate, we build our mental and emotional stamina over time without creating undue distress."
My process for dealing with the anxiety and dread of social interaction is all about slow acclimation. Start with small steps: Go out for a quiet evening walk in your neighborhood or at a nearby park. Bring your mask. Go for an outdoor coffee date with a friend. And bring your mask. Find a reason to leave the house for a short time focusing completely on your own enjoyment once per week. Once you're comfortable, move on to twice a week. Then three times. Be patient with yourself and the state of the world. We're not done with this thing quite yet.
When it comes to building up your stamina—just like with any workout, you can have great days and bad days. If you have a low-energy day, use that day to recharge. Just keep trying.
At the same time, stay mindful of your socializing limits. Make plans that feel doable: If you’re very low-energy, a (safe) night out with friends isn’t the best place to start. Maybe a quiet movie night with your (vaccinated) sibling is better for this adjustment period. If you know you’re going to do something taxing later in the week, conserve your mental energy beforehand so you're not uncomfortable when you actually attend. There’s nothing wrong in knowing your limits—in fact, if you consistently overextend your mental energy reserves, you’re probably more likely to push yourself into social burnout before long. "The best way to build psychological endurance is to take a step forward and then rest to restore and build your resilience,” Manly stresses, “Repeating this practice at an individual pace will serve your overall well-being in the long term."
The process of working through your social anxiety takes patience and consistency, like a workout or skincare routine. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution—it’s up to you to know where you’re at mentally and to take the measures you need to protect your mental health. Hopefully, a "post-pandemic" era is on the way. If you're not there yet, you have time to work on it.