As restrictions ease here in Australia and we slowly begin our journey back to normality, I've noticed a real spike in my anxiety levels. Anytime I start to think about piling onto crowded buses, heading back into the office, or generally being around people again, I get anxious. It's not that I haven't missed all of those things, I have (well, maybe not the bus), but I'm not exactly in a rush to get back to 'normal'. The idea of it makes me feel weird, which is all just part and parcel of living with anxiety in general, let alone during a pandemic.
Social anxiety comes in varying degrees depending on the social situation. Sometimes it can appear in small doses that we can usually chalk up to nerves, and others it can be completely debilitating. Those who have experienced social anxiety will know that it often comes in three phases: pre-socialising, while your socialising and post-socialising. Each stage carries with it a different type of anxiousness and requires different coping mechanisms to help bring you out the other side.
Knowing that I'm not alone in my anxiety, especially at a time like this, I spoke to Lysn psychologist, Nancy Sokarno about all three stages and how to manage these feelings as they arise.
Straight out of the gate, it's important to understand that people who suffer from social anxiety typically know that their anxiety is irrational, is not based on fact, and does not make rational sense, says Nancy. Nevertheless, both their thoughts and feelings are still very valid. "The fear induced by being negatively evaluated or judged by others in social interactions can cause people to feel anxious, self-conscious and have irrational thoughts about the experiences."
If you experience social anxiety, Nancy recommends understanding and acknowledging your own safety behaviours before socialising — avoiding eye contact, mumbling your words, sitting away from the crowd etc. — "People who suffer with social anxiety often have safety behaviours in which they utilise in social encounters as coping mechanisms. This could look like, avoiding eye contact, mumbling your words, sitting away from the crowd etc.,identifying your safety behaviours and being consciously aware of when you use them can help you face the uncomfortableness head on, says Nancy."
It can also help you identify when someone else around you might be struggling with anxiety in a social setting. If you notice these behaviours in friends, loved ones or even acquaintances, you can subtly check in on them to make sure they're OK, or do small things to help make them more comfortable in this environment.
Nancy also recommends learning a few breathing techniques so that if feelings of anxiousness arise you have the ability to self-soothe. "Practice breathing techniques prior to engaging in a social interaction so that you can revisit your breathing every time your physiological response to anxiety shows up," says Nancy. " It will help you slow your heartbeat down, allow you to breath more calmly and regain focus on the present moment. Helping you get out of your mind for a minute."
As we look to re-enter society, Nancy says that it's important to take it slow and think about what situations (and the number of people) you're going to be comfortable to be in. "Think about what situations would you like to feel comfortable in most and work your way down. How can you expose yourself to these interactions in a way that is in your control at first?"
"For example, if you fear eating in front of others. Take yourself to a café at a time that is not busy and have something small to eat or drink. Analyse your feelings; bank the interaction as positive or negative. Work your way up to a group dinner with some friends or a family BBQ. Grade the exposure over time."
Alternatively, you could start off with an activity, says Nancy, "To introduce you more to social settings, engage in activities that are not so formal such as catching up for coffee, which is predominately face to face conversation. Try shopping, exercising, going to do something fun that requires you to engage in conversations about what you're doing."
During the Social Occassion
Making conversation during this pandemic has felt very limited and somewhat repetitive for most of us. We've all been doing pretty much the same limited activities day in and day out over the last few months, so making conversation can feel hard, especially if it was already something you struggled with pre-pandemic.
"We have all been impacted by this pandemic in one way or another, so we have a starting point of conversation as we ease back into "normal" life," says Nancy. She recommends engaging in topics that are universal to everyone so it makes it easier to come up with content for the conversation — work, family, weather, sports, news, pets etc.
But also be open to talking about things you're looking forward to, plans you've been making or anything that feels a little more excitement driven and opens up a wider range of conversation topics.
When you do engage in conversation be it with new or old friends, Nancy recommends the CLASS method to keep conversations free flowing: Choose a group, Listen, Ask a question, Show interest, Share about yourself. "It's important to listen and make eye contact, use a polite way of entering a conversation with opening questions like — did you see the footy last night, can I ask where you got that jumper from?", says Nancy.
Your body language is also equally as important when it comes to holding a conversation. "Lean into a conversation, smile, make eye contact, don't cross your arms or turn your body away from a conversation," says Nancy. "Take initiative to greet people first to show you're interested and so you don't have a chance to over think the first interaction."
And while we're all super excited about pubs reopening on June 1, if you experience social anxiety Nancy recommends saying away from alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. "Although using substances feels like an effective coping mechanism because you can numb the feelings, it is hindering your neo-cortex which is the decision making part of your brain. You want to be in full control of your mind and environment and not be clouded by an inability to make informed logical decisions. You don't want to wake up with alcohol/drug anxiety." — Ahh 'Hangxiety', my old friend. I haven't missed you.
The ol' Sunday scaries, the social comedown, hangxiety — whatever you call it, we've all been there. Nancy's best tip: "Remember everyone is too worried about themselves to be worrying about what you're doing!" — and boy is she right.
Challenge yourself with a 'perceived outcome Vs realistic outcome' reflection, says Nancy, "What did I think was going to happen Vs What actually happened. Bank that experience as evidence to utilise in your next interaction. Reframe your thoughts. Build on positive references."
She also agrees that debriefing with a friend that was without after a night out (we all know that meme) can be super soothing for your social anxiety. "Your anxiety has filtered your interpretations of the event as negative, get a different perspective!".