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I have to be with people again? Social anxiety in the age of COVID

5 minute read
People eating at a table outside.

There’s no right or wrong way to return to socializing. If you're coping with social anxiety, here's how to do it on your terms. 

Amy Marturana Winderl

By Amy Marturana Winderl

The global start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 marked an abrupt end to most people’s social lives. Today nearly 60% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. The world has significantly reopened. And we’re making serious progress toward a return to normalcy.

That’s a good thing. But after so many months of alone time, the idea of socializing again can feel extremely intimidating.

And that’s true for everyone, not just people who were already dealing with social anxiety pre-pandemic.

“Many people who don’t typically have social anxiety have just become so introverted over the past year and a half. [For them], even the thought of going back to work is anxiety-provoking,” says psychologist Renee A. Exelbert, Ph.D. She’s an adjunct professor at New York University in New York City.

Bottom line: We’re out of practice. Which means it’s totally normal if you feel anxious about jumping back into social situations. On top of that, there’s the fact that the pandemic isn’t really over. Fear of getting sick or unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 is still a real concern.

While many people can relate to these feelings, it’s important to remember that anxiety is very individualized, Exelbert says. “What people regard as stressful, dangerous or unfamiliar is very different for each person.”

For some, talking on the phone makes their heart race. For others, the fear of being in a big group can be overwhelming. And then there are people who stress about the thought of a 1-on-1 conversation.

Whatever situation makes you feel anxious, there are steps you can take to feel more comfortable. Exelbert shares her best tips below.

And don’t forget: If social anxiety is seriously disrupting your life, our network of licensed therapists can help you right from home. Learn more about virtual mental health care from the Optum Store.

Social anxiety tip #1: Challenge your thoughts

If you’re completely convinced you’re going to have a negative experience, you probably will. A helpful thing you can do is shift the way you’re thinking about the event, Exelbert says. Challenge your assumptions by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What evidence do I have that it will be a bad experience?
  • Could it be good?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Exelbert suggests thinking through the answers and being open to the possibility that the worst-case scenario likely won’t happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t be that bad anyway.

Do this exercise before you attempt to do the anxiety-inducing thing. It’ll help remind you why it’s not as bad as it seems. You’ll be okay no matter what happens.

Social anxiety tip #2: Expose yourself gradually

“One of the best ways to deal with any kind of social anxiety is to gradually expose yourself to the aversive situation,” Exelbert says.

The key is to figure out what situations make you feel anxious, ranked from most to least scary. Then start with the least threatening one. Once you’ve grown comfortable with that, tackle the next-scariest thing.

For example, if you’re feeling anxious about being in an office again, start by emailing or calling 1 or 2 of your work friends to catch up. If group settings make you more anxious than 1-on-1 interactions, make lunch plans with 1 of these people.

This can help you start to feel acclimated to somebody familiar from work before you expand to lunch or happy hour with 2 or 3 people.

You might also find out if you can return to the office in small doses. Talk to your boss about starting with 1 or 2 days per week. You can also suggest doing half days in the office and the other half remote, gradually working up to more in-person time.

Again, the key is starting with the least scary scenario. Work through that before trying something even more anxiety-inducing. If you approach it this way, you’ll learn that these situations aren’t as scary as they seem in your head, Exelbert says. Over time, the anxiety will lessen.

Woman smiling
If anxiety is preventing you from living life on your terms, Optum’s network of therapists is here to help

Social anxiety tip #3: Set boundaries and be upfront about them

“Everyone’s comfort level with COVID, distancing or regaining social connection is different,” Exelbert says. Telling others how you feel is the best way to establish boundaries. Plus, you’ll avoid feeling pressured to do things before you’re ready.

“It’s important to own your own experience and say, ‘This is how I feel, and I hope you can understand and respect that,’” Exelbert says.

You might want to go to a party only if there are fewer than 10 people. Or maybe you’ll go only if it’s outdoors. Perhaps you need to know if everyone in attendance is fully vaccinated. Whatever your preference, it’s always best to be clear about it upfront.

“Voice your boundaries as best as you can. But understand that not everyone is going to feel the same way you do. That’s okay,” Exelbert says. “You need to do what feels right for you. That’s the only thing you can control.”

Social anxiety tip #4: Be patient with yourself

“Remember, it took a long time to get accustomed to quarantine,” Exelbert says. “It didn’t happen overnight.”

Readjusting to normal life and socialization is also a process. It’s okay if it takes you a little while to get there. In fact, it might help to remember that there’s no “normal” these days. Post-pandemic life is about gradually figuring out a new normal.

“You don't have to be back on your game 100%. Everyone is adjusting and trying to find their footing,” Exelbert says. Take it slowly and give yourself grace. 

Learn more about anxiety and how to find relief with our guide. 

Social anxiety tip #5: Know when to seek help

If your anxiety gets to a level where it’s causing problems in your work, family or social life, or it’s hard to get through your day, it’s time to talk to a mental health professional.

They can help you find the right treatment — which may include medication, therapy, lifestyle changes or a combination of these things. They can also work with you to reduce the impact of anxiety on your life.

Not sure where to start? You can get a referral from your primary care doctor, ask friends and family for suggestions, or explore the mental health services available from Optum Store. We offer three subscription plans that are designed to fit with your life. Start your free assessment now. 

Additional source
COVID vaccination rates:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). “Covid-19 Vaccinations in the United States”