You’re at a social gathering. It’s the first time you’ve seen friends since the pandemic began. Not behind a computer screen. Not outside and distanced. You and your buddies are fully vaccinated and you can actually enjoy each other’s company, hugs and all. But you find yourself not feeling as excited and relieved as you imagined. Instead you’re nervous, on edge – anxious maybe? Or possibly after just an hour of socializing you find yourself oddly drained and depleted, like you just ran a socializing marathon. Maybe you just feel super awkward and uncomfortable. This isn’t like you. You are the outgoing extrovert who thrives off of social events. Or maybe you’ve always been an introvert or had some anxiety, except now it feels like someone has turned the dial up to 100. So what gives?
Sound at all familiar? It is. With vaccination rates going up and cases of COVID-19 going down, more and more states are easing restrictions and opening up. With the latest news from the CDC that fully vaccinated people can socialize and forgo masks, things are starting to look a little more normal. That means people being able to see each other safely for the first time in a while.
We should be pumped, right? After a year of isolation we should be ready to pull an all-nighter with friends and family. Unfortunately, though, this is not the case for many people. Several of my clients have shared how anxious and awkward they feel socializing again. Or how exhausted they feel, even after a short gathering with friends and family. Some have always had anxiety, for others this is new and unsettling.
It makes sense. We have been staying at home, avoiding social contact for over a year, in order to beat COVID-19. This was essential. But with any behavior, if we stop it for long enough, it becomes unfamiliar. And our brains hate what is unfamiliar. We are out of practice with socializing and like any muscle, it takes time to rebuild.
If you find yourself feeling this way, here are a few tips I recommend to help manage social anxiety and fatigue:
Observe and Accept
One of the first practices I encourage you to do is observe how you feel when it is time to socialize. Is it anxiety? Worry? Frustration? Fatigue? Resistance? However you may be feeling, try to notice it without pushing it away. Just observe. From there, accept how you are feeling, no matter how unpleasant or challenging that emotion may be. The most surefire way to make an uncomfortable emotion even more uncomfortable is to judge that emotion. In DBT we call this a secondary emotion. You feel worried about going to that BBQ, then you get mad at yourself for feeling that way. Don’t try to pretend or tell yourself you should be feeling differently. How you feel is how you feel. Let go of how you think you should be feeling.
Determine What You Are Able To Give
If you suddenly find social events draining (or maybe you always have) take a moment to rate your energy before the event. Out of 100 percent, where is your energy at? A 100 means you are full of boundless energy, a zero means you are on empty with nothing left to give. Rate your energy and be honest with yourself. Based on that number, decide what you are able to give: how long you are able to stay, how much conversation you can engage in or if you have the energy at all for the event. I recommend not going over your energy threshold and depleting yourself entirely. Save some for yourself. If your energy is at 50 percent, do not give all 50 percent away.
What Is A Gentle Push And What Is A Hard Shove?
To get back to normalcy, it’s going to take some time. That means stepping outside of this new comfort zone and pushing yourself (safely of course). I encourage you to consider what is taking small steps outside of your comfort zone and what is too much. Coffee with a friend may bring up some discomfort but can feel good afterwards. Going away for the weekend with friends, however, may be too overwhelming. Part of managing anxiety is becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. Consider what is uncomfortable, not unmanageable.
Above all else, go easy on yourself during this time. It has already been such a challenging year, the last thing you need is to be judging and criticizing yourself right now. You’re not doing anything wrong here. You were stuck inside for a year; of course this is going to be uncomfortable. The more criticism you throw at yourself, the harder it will be to get out there. You are a human, living through a crazy time. Let yourself be human, and above all else, be patient with yourself.