Now that we’re entering a post-pandemic phase, you might find that more people are uploading Instagram photos of themselves enjoying the outdoors. Your friends might have started making plans for a reunion or a night out too. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the long-awaited post-COVID phase, but somehow you don’t feel as excited as everyone else. Could you be having social anxiety?
You feel panicky at the thought of being outside and socialising. When you think about leaving your house, you start asking yourself: What is the new social norm? Can I still shake hands? If not, what do I do without being awkward? What if it’s crowded? What are the new rules and regulations of this place?
Most people would think that returning to normalcy is something to be happy and excited about, but don’t worry if you don’t feel that way. You’re not alone. What you’re experiencing may be post-pandemic social anxiety, which can affect even those who didn’t have social anxiety before COVID-19.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the most common subtype of anxiety disorder. It is commonly attributed to shyness, but in reality, it is more severe than that. Worrying about social situations occasionally is normal, but people with social anxiety will feel overly worried before, during and after socialising. This can affect their daily activities, self-confidence, relationships and work/school life.
It usually manifests in our teenage years but gets better for some of us as we get older. Although for some others, their anxiety can only be managed with treatment.
It is important to remember that not all anxiety is an anxiety disorder. Shyness is normal at first, but some people eventually adjust and start to enjoy socialising. However, when the anxiety starts to cause dysfunction and severe distress, this may signify a bigger problem.
Some of the signs include:
- Fear or anxiety of social situations where others might scrutinise you.
- You’re afraid your behaviour will lead to embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection in a social situation.
- Social situations provoke feelings of extreme fear and anxiety, so you avoid them.
How many people in SEA have it?
The statistics for social anxiety (and anxiety disorders in general) in Southeast Asia aren’t very accurate. 75% to 95% of people with mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries cannot access mental health services; hence the numbers tabulated may be far more than we believe it to be. In 2017, Southeast Asia made up 23% of anxiety disorders worldwide, the highest of all the regions. Recent research has also shown that global anxiety levels are rising now that we’re entering our post-pandemic phase.
How is COVID-19 affecting social anxiety levels?
People who have never experienced social anxiety may ask, “You’ve been stuck in lockdown for so long without having to go outside and socialise! How is your social anxiety worse now?” My answer to them would be: Exactly, you just explained the reason why some people are developing more apparent social anxiety symptoms.
People with social anxiety may have felt “safer” in the comfort of their own homes during lockdowns, but this does not mean that their social anxiety is cured. In fact, it is more likely that all those lockdowns amplified their anxiety levels because they didn’t have to deal with it actively. Being in isolation for periods at a time atrophies your social skills; that’s why even those who had no prior experience of social anxiety may be developing symptoms now.
Plus, the standard advice during the pandemic was to “stay home”, which reinforces social anxiety. Avoidance only keeps the disorder going.
Now that the world is starting to open up again, we need to think about masks, hand sanitisers, social distancing and current social etiquette aside from the usual daily stressors of life. Even people who are excited to rejoin society may be anxious about these seemingly trivial things. Still, these are genuine concerns that can hinder a person’s daily activities and relationships.
What can you do?
Always remember that you are not alone. The thought of having resume life as normal may feel overwhelming, but here are some things you can do to help yourself calm down and take on your days with confidence:
1. Plan your day.
Are you going out to a social event? Take time for yourself before leaving the house to calm down and strategise: What are you nervous about and what can you do to mitigate the situation if it happens, and what are the things within your control. Do whatever you need to ensure that you can make informed decisions and allow yourself to be comfortable.
2. Respect your boundaries.
Are you starting to feel too overwhelmed? It’s okay to limit your time at a social gathering or even decline the invitation. While you are encouraged to go out there and be brave, you should also not feel pressured to rejoin society as quick as everyone else. Don’t rush. Take your time to readjust and slowly ease yourself back into socialising.
3. Slowly incorporate socialising into your schedule.
You don’t have to meet everyone at once, even if you were invited. You can start by first reaching out to your loved ones and closest friends. Get acquainted with being around people slowly, and the best way is with those with who you are most comfortable. It is also important to have honest conversations with your family and friends about your concerns as this can avoid misunderstandings.
4. Take good care of yourself.
We know there’s a lot of pressure today to be go-getters, but if the thought of post-pandemic socialising scares you, listen to your mind and body. Prepare yourself for the outside world by taking care of yourself first, such as by doing these:
- Get a good night’s rest
- Don’t skip your meals
- Binge your favourite Netflix series
- Confide in a loved one
- Meditate, or practice at least a minute of mindfulness daily
5. Seek professional help
Of course, no one can help or advise you as much as a healthcare professional can. If your social anxiety has reached an unbearable stage, do not be afraid to reach out for help in whatever form is most comfortable to you – online, face-to-face, or through the phone. Finding the right professional and treatment for you might be a journey, but it will help you tremendously in achieving a less stressful life once found.