As vaccination programs are advancing, many countries are talking about easing lockdown restrictions and returning, at least partly, to normal life. The UK, for example, will allow small gatherings at the end of March, and if everything goes according to plan, nightclubs could even be reopened at the end of June. For some, this is the news that they’ve been waiting to hear for months. After more than one year of strict restrictions and isolation, being able to go to the cinema and have coffee with friends sounds like a dream come true. But not everyone is excited to hear about easing lockdown restrictions. As comforting as the return to normality might be, easing lockdown restrictions are a cause for social anxiety for many people. It might sound odd – after all, many of us miss going back to the gym, hanging out with friends, and seeing family members in real life, not just over Zoom. However, reverting to pre-pandemic habits isn’t as easy as it sounds because one year of isolation and social distancing had a deep impact on our mental health.
Why do we experience social anxiety as lockdown restrictions are lifted?
As soon as news broke out that friends and families would be able to meet again in groups of six, group chats came alive. For some, it felt exhilarating to finally make plans again, but not everyone feels comfortable reverting instantly. For many people, the idea of going out and meeting others after one year of following strict social distancing rules can seem terrifying. Psychologists explain that this is because our minds have been so busy with social distancing, and there’s so much social pressure to respect guidelines that even something as simple as a handshake can seem odd. That’s why you feel uncomfortable when seeing large crowds in movies and TV shows and cringe when two people kiss each other on the cheek. Lockdown has made us more responsible, but it has also changed our thinking patterns. Going out again can legitimately make you worried for your health and the health of your loved ones, especially considering that not everyone is on board with easing restrictions just yet. It’s still not clear how long this will last. Usually, the human mind is flexible, but the impact that the pandemic had on mental health could be deeper than we think, and one paper published in The Lancet called for widespread mental monitoring.
For people who were already struggling with social anxiety, the lockdown has caused even more challenges. One standard piece of advice that people with social anxiety receive is not to avoid a certain type of interaction if it triggers their anxiety, because that will only make it worse. Instead, they, should try to conquer negative thoughts and face their fears – whether that’s public speaking or meeting new people. Except the lockdown forced people to be isolated and enter a comfort zone that’s not easy so easy to escape because anxiety remained unchallenged for a long time.
Now that restrictions are being lifted, and the prospect of going out again doesn’t seem so distant, social anxiety can manifest with thoughts such as:
- Will I still be able to socialise after being absent for so long?
- Will my friends still like me? Will I be awkward and uncomfortable?
- Will I look good enough?
- Will I be funny or entertaining enough?
- I didn’t like clubs and crowds before, how will I handle them now?
There are also lots of expectations for what you should look like after the lockdown. Social media adds a lot to the pressure because we see many posts about people who reached their dream weight while stuck at home, picked up a new hobby, learned a foreign language, and lived their best life. But it’s important to remember that most of the time, social media posts rarely depict the truth. The reality is that the lockdown had a negative impact on mental health, and most people experienced sadness, anxiety, and depression because of it. If you’re feeling anxious and comfortable, chances are your friends might be feeling the same.
How to cope with post-lockdown social anxiety
“One of the biggest challenges of living with social anxiety is that you’re constantly worrying about other people’s perception of you”, explains Floss Knight, founder of uktherapyguide.com. This prevents you from feeling at ease and feeds negative thought patterns. But if you learn to identify these negative thought patterns, break the cycle, and change them into positive ones that more accurately reflect reality, it will be easier to focus on the present.”
The past year has been tough on everyone, so learn to be kind to yourself. Changing self-sabotaging thought patterns doesn’t happen overnight, but by being patient and practising a few self-help strategies can help you feel less uncomfortable about returning to old habits:
- Be open about your feelings. Many people have struggled with their mental health during the lockdown and have anxiety themselves, and if you bring up the topic, you might discover that your friends are nervous too. If you do not have a support system, remember that talking to a therapist is always an option.
- Practice mindfulness. This will help you recognise negative thought patterns and interrupt them.
- Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation can help you ease anxiety.
- Try journaling. This will help you be more in tune with your emotions and improve your communication skills.
Last but not least, it’s important to pace yourself. After one year spent in social isolation, it’s normal to feel a bit apprehensive about going out and returning to your old routine. Take things one step at a time, and reconnect with your friends safely, when the official guidelines recommend it. For example, if you feel concerned that going to a restaurant might be too much, start by going for a walk with your friends instead. This way, you are slowly building up tolerance and overcoming the initial anxiety.