How to Deal With Social Anxiety After Lockdown

4 steps you can take on your own mental roadmap out of lockdown.

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4 steps you can take on your own mental roadmap out of lockdown.

We’re nearing the end of the roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions in the UK. If you’re like me you’ve gone past caring about “Freedom Day” on 21st June. Which since writing this blog has been pushed back another month!

The truth is, we’ve got quite a few “freedoms” now but for some people, that’s actually causing a surprising level of anxiety.

I liken it to a rabbit that’s got used to being in a hutch. After a while you can leave the door open and it probably won’t want to come out. Even if it does, after some trepidation it emerges, has a run around, nibbles a bit of grass and runs back in to safety.

Unless you were my rabbit from when I was about 7 which escaped into a 40-acre corn field at night during combining which prompted a frantic neighbourhood search only to find it happily sat back in the hutch some hours later…

That’s basically us after lockdown. We’re all having a different experience of post lockdown freedoms.

Where are you on this scale?

Are you feeling a bit anxious venturing back into the “real world”? Nervous about meeting in a group? Overwhelmed with social rules? Feeling strangely tired after a social gathering? Can’t be bothered?

Or maybe you’re feeling really anxious and dread “getting out there” again. You don’t feel safe. You don’t know what to say anyway. So you’re just staying home because it all seems to much.

Then you’ll want to read this because I’m going to tell you why this is and offer you tips on how you can start to re-start your social and work life without the stress and pressure you might be putting on yourself.

Think of it as your own mental roadmap out of lockdown.

The first time I went out to meet several in a social setting I felt a bit strange. I don’t associate with having anxiety anymore as I addressed that long ago, but there was an unfamiliar feeling at the thought of making a plan to go out and when I was there, something between a feeling of “oh, this is sort of normal, like no time has passed. Is it really a year since I’ve seen you?” and “this is odd. I’ve not got much to say really…you?”.

What is Social Anxiety?

It’s a fear of social situations whilst feeling excessively self-conscious to the point where you dread and/or avoid any situation where you might be in a group or in the spotlight. It can be mildly annoying to extremely debilitating.

You can find yourself worried about going out with friends, meeting strangers or even just talking on the phone. Crowds may be a no-no, and a trip to the shops may cause you to break into a sweat.

You may be dreading going back into your workplace, especially since a lot of employers are only issuing vague statements about what may happen in a few weeks/months, leaving the rest to your already hypervigilant imagination.

Add this to this the news coverage of doom and social media comparisonitis we have a perfect storm for a complete mental meltdown.

The truth is societal expectations have changed and we’ve forgotten what to do. The rules are different. New social etiquettes have appeared (think one-way systems, people dodging and fist bumps).

We’re scared of making a mistake, being judged as a Covidiot and being seen as boring because we’ve done absolutely nothing during lockdown except eat and now we don’t even have any clothes that fit. Anyone else have nothing to wear??

When I checked in with myself, my inner dialogue was something along the lines of “where shall we go? What’s the rules in here? Where can I walk? How can I order? How are my friends feeling? Shall we hug? How was their lockdown? Can I pass drinks? Is that rude? Can I be bothered? I’m tired.. “

The inner commentary had taken my attention off the actual event itself so I felt lost in my own head which would explain the surreal feeling of not feeling like I was actually “there”. I wasn’t really present.

But I don’t have anxiety, why am I suddenly feeling strange about this?

Humans are social by nature. But for the last year we’ve been told to be un-social! Socially distanced. Social cues hidden with masks and screen only contact. No large gatherings. No meeting your family if they’re shielding.

If you lived on your own and worked from home (like I have for most of it) you’ve only been allowed to see 1 person for a limited amount of time per day. It’s like being in isolation in prison with limited time out for a walk to stop you going insane.

According to a survey by Mind – More than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) reported an increase in anxiety during lockdown. Just over half of young people and adults without any previous experience of mental health problems said their mental health got worse too.

So here’s 4 steps you can take on your own mental roadmap out of lockdown.

  1. Question your thoughts

You’ve probably heard the acronym that fear stands for False Events Appearing Real. It’s a useful one to remember. As soon as you have one of those “what if” thoughts challenge yourself with a simple question – is it true?

Within the 60,000 thoughts we have per day (what, no wonder my head hurts!) the majority of these will be white noise. Repeated thoughts from the past that we ruminate over again and again.

By asking yourself which ones are true and which ones are just noise, you can find some sense of reality and perspective.

2. Make a Plan

If you find you have valid concerns about something work out what’s in your control to address.

It doesn’t make you a basket case just because you’re worried about Covid or what the rules are at a particular venue, or whether there’s car parking.

They key is to work out what you’re in control of and then do something to ease your concerns.

Worried about the rules? Check with the venue. Worried about how to get somewhere because you’ve not driven for a while? Check your car over, plan your route, get a friend to come with you. Worried about how your friends feel? Ask them how they feel about hugging, eating out, and even if they share the same worries as you around what to talk about when you get there!

Social settings also include the workplace, so if you’re making assumptions about what might be happening as things open up then speak to your employer or a union about expectations and options. Businesses are being far more flexible than before the pandemic.

The important thing is not to ruminate in your own head. Remember, the only thing you have control of are your thoughts and your actions. Nothing else.

3. Take Baby Steps

Get familiar with feeling uncomfortable. Remember how you felt when lockdown first happened? The novelty of being at home soon descended into chaos as people struggled with home schooling, home working, social restrictions, testing, isolating…but you got used to it. You formed new routines, new ways of living. You coped.

It’s all too easy to take the old fears and project them into the future.

I remember I developed anxiety during my breakdown. For months I was too frightened to drive the car because my memory kept taking me back to couple of times I really couldn’t remember how to drive the car because I was so ill. I had to push I had to myself to do a few safe drives to prove to my mind I knew how to do it. You can read my story here – Breaking Down to Breaking Through.

So choose something safe to experiment with. Go to a different supermarket. Take a different route in the car. Meet someone in person. And build up over time, you don’t have to do everything in one go. Just commit to one social visit or gym class a week.

Your mind will soon turn the unfamiliar back to familiar and mark it as a safe activity in your mind. Then it will stop treating it as a threat.

4. Practice Compassion

For yourself and others.

Everyone has had their own experience of living through the pandemic. Despite what social media shows most people haven’t been living their best life.

Being kind to yourself and others is going to be an essential part of rebuilding our connections and relationships.

If someone doesn’t want to see you or do something, or cancels at the last minute, it’s not all about you. Someone with social anxiety is excessively self-conscious so won’t be aware of the impact on others. They just want to survive.

As someone who sits between being introverted and quite outgoing I find I’m having to spread my events out so I have downtime in between. That’s not because I’m a crap friend or lazy. I just need some space to recharge my energy.

According to clinical psychologist Dr Julie Smith, this is expected after a long period of lockdown:

When you do something that is new and different, your brain is set up to give you a little spike in stress. It’s your brain’s way of saying “we haven’t done this in a while, stay alert and be careful. That’s just your survival response.

Social hangover is a thing. Pandemic fatigue is a thing. Just the thought of going out can leave you physically tired!

So cut yourself and everyone else some slack. We’re all just doing our best.

“Baby steps will take you all the way up Mount Everest if you just keep taking them”.

Mary Morrissey

So just keep going, one step at a time, and create a new normal that works for you.

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