The New Reality
The new way to refer to the future as ‘post-COVID’ seems more than a bit inaccurate to some, as it presumes that in the future we will be ‘beyond’ or ‘past’ the COVID pandemic. At this point, most people acknowledge that the pandemic will have left a permanent impression on the world as we experience it.
The vast majority of society accepts that, just as it was regarding pre- and post-September 11th, things will never quite be the same again. And when we move beyond the problems themselves, an objective view is that this is neither inherently positive nor negative.
And while this will amount to changes to society as a whole, it raises some important considerations regarding those suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder in particular. Whenever the pandemic dust settles, how will those currently struggling with Social Anxiety Disorder and those with a latent predisposition be impacted?
Social Anxiety Defined
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people living with social anxiety experience intense fear and anxiety concerning at least one social situation where others might judge them. Discernible signs include speaking very quietly, providing minimal detail in response to questions, and avoiding eye contact.
When we drill down, we find that social anxiety is essentially the fear of being judged, criticized, or rejected by others. Those who are plagued by social anxiety believe that, if they do things just right, they can escape disappointing others and circumvent that dreaded judgment.
However, protecting oneself from another’s judgment is nothing more than fantasy, and in our current predicament with unclear perceptions and rules as to what is considered safe, it is more impossible than ever!
Those suffering from social anxiety have an intense and abiding fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection from others. This emotional pain causes them to shy away from social interactions. The impact of social anxiety is multi-tiered as it affects people on cognitive, emotional, somatic, and behavioral levels. While everyone’s experience is unique, there are some common components that most people agree upon:
- Persistent negative thoughts regarding how other people are judging them within any given social interaction. These thoughts can occur before, during, and after the interaction itself.
- Exclusively focusing on oneself while interacting with others. This hyper-focus could be directed towards one’s physical presentation, speech, or anxiety symptoms…practically anything.
- Anxiety symptoms are often coupled with difficult emotions and sensations that turn just about every social interaction into an unpleasant experience.
- Reflexively developing “safety” behaviors and strategies to eliminate or mitigate an imagined risk associated with social interaction and protect the person from the perceived harm.
Strategies to Decrease Social Anxiety
In a world devoid of the new social constraints imposed by the pandemic, some well-known strategies have helped people to overcome their social anxiety, or at least to mitigate some of its pain:
- Setting up realistic expectations when interacting with others. Since it is impossible to adhere to rules that will please everyone, instead, follow those rules that seem to be most reasonable based on what is recommended from trusted sources. Acknowledge that others may not approve of the behavior. Adopt the mindset of “If I displease someone and am not forgiven for violating an expectation, the criteria of what is right is not another’s expectation.
- Curb that seemingly uncontrollable urge to seek validation from others that you are correct. Seeking reassurance reinforces the belief that we need others to approve of us. Genuine confidence comes from permitting ourselves to make mistakes and accepting that we won’t please everyone.
- When those feelings of shame and humiliation arise, don’t try to push them away, but rather allow them to dissipate on their own. The presence of negative emotion isn’t necessarily an indication that you have done something wrong. There will inevitably be discomfort in uncertain social situations. When we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable emotions, rather than try to discard them, they will fade away more quickly.
A hallmark of the pandemic is a social constraint that is having an even more profound impact on those with social anxiety. Those plagued with social anxiety often avoid interactions with other people out of fear. Social distancing during the pandemic makes it easier and more acceptable for people to avoid socializing, which may provide short-term relief for those with social anxiety.
However, this very avoidance has the potential of deepening social anxiety itself. That’s because one of the most common treatments for social anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — involves gradual exposure to social situations. Therapists use CBT to treat social anxiety by asking their clients to identify and challenge negative beliefs about socializing. Often, this involves carrying out behavior experiments in which a person tests how he/she copes with difficult situations.
When those with social anxiety are forced into this exposure, they are confronted with challenging the very thoughts and beliefs which are at the core of some of their fears. Denied the opportunity to do this, their liberation from social anxiety becomes stymied. Whereas over time, challenging these thoughts and beliefs could have revealed that their fears are baseless, sheltering in place leaves them stuck inside themselves.
But the impact of the pandemic can go both ways. While it brings with it additional challenges, the pandemic offers those suffering from social anxiety new opportunities as well.
Since everyone is bound to make mistakes while following the rules of social distancing and wearing masks, thus upsetting strangers, friends, and family, the pandemic is an excellent opportunity to build one’s resilience to others’ judgments. And with greater resilience, those with social anxiety will be less vulnerable in future encounters.
The social constraints of the pandemic are not limited to more infrequent social interactions. When we interact face to face, social distancing precautions and masks can make it difficult to read facial expressions and body language. This means that the quality of our social interactions can be compromised as well. And this is to say nothing of the potential limitations of virtual communication.
The bottom line is that, no matter how you go about it, social communications are being dulled. And this dullness exacerbates the uncertainty of social interaction. That uncertainty may trigger thoughts such as, “So, what are they thinking? I cannot even see their mouth! Are they scowling? Is that a frown I see on the screen?”
This uncertainty is particularly challenging for those struggling with social anxiety. That is because certainty in social interactions causes one to feel more reassured. Adding these extra layers of uncertainty has the opposite effect.
But if the one with social anxiety can realize that everyone is in the same boat — just like I cannot see them, they cannot see me, it may lead to an even more far-reaching realization — that truthfully, we were always in the same boat!
Creating a Hunger for Human Contact
For some, spending seemingly endless hours alone, ruminating negative thoughts coupled with minimal opportunities to engage in social interactions, makes the prospect of reentering the social frontier once the pandemic shackles are released even more daunting. However, for others, absence has made the heart grow fonder.
The environment seems to be teeming with a deeper appreciation and hunger for the basic human need to connect. And those struggling with social anxiety are no exception. Despite their fears, they also crave that same social connection. Mental Health professionals who work with clients suffering from social anxiety report a stronger motivation and willingness to “risk” socialization now that there is a “shortage.”
As one client shared, “At first I thought this whole social isolation thing was a dream come true! I do not have to interact regularly with people in person?! Jackpot! But then I realized it is not all it is cracked up to be. I miss those brief interactions in the store and the office, just seeing people.”
Offering New Communication Modalities
Now that traditional communication channels are limited, adaptations have grown. Just as when someone loses a sense or physical ability, that person maximizes what else he/she has, so new communication modalities have been either innovated or have been emphasized, now that social distancing is keeping people apart.
Communication muscles are being flexed in new ways. Verbal and written word, tone, posture, active listening, and eye contact are just some of these muscles that are being flexed. While this may be striking fear in the hearts of some with social anxiety, for others it is expanding their communication toolbox.
Dealing with Social Anxiety After the Quarantine
There are many who suffer from social anxiety, who have no idea how they are going to manage their social anxiety when the quarantines are eventually over. What they need to understand is that the most important thing to remember is to be committed to easing themselves gradually, back into social situations.
They need to start small by spending time with people with whom they are the closest. From there, they can slowly expand the circle. They should avoid diving back into situations that will overwhelm them, such as with new people or in large groups.
If returning to face-to-face encounters seems a bit too much, then they should begin (or continue) to interact virtually. Group video chats with relatives or close friends may allow getting comfortable. If the anxiety level begins to rise, it is easy to blend into the background when there are a few different people on the call.
However, if there has been one certainty that we have experienced over the past few months, it is that nothing is certain at all. We realize now more than ever that we know very little, if anything, about what the future will bring. Or what the appropriate precautions are at any particular time. The mirage of control has disappeared.
Those with social anxiety should realize that, aside from safety concerns, the return to “normal socialization” may be daunting for many people. So feeling some anxiety about being around people again may not be as unusual as it seems.
The Secret to Moving Forward
When faced with the challenges of today and the uncertainties of tomorrow, we have control over practically nothing besides our attitude. The perspective with which we choose to see every new day is completely under our control. So back to our initial question: How COVID-19 will impact those struggling with social anxiety is really up to them to decide. It could go either way. That’s the secret!