For almost 1 and a half years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a good portion of the workforce to operate remotely from home. With flexibility in working hours and the continued closure of popular public places like malls and parks, many of us have transitioned into an isolated sedentary lifestyle.
As we get ready to return to the workplace, we have all realized that it will take quite a bit of effort to acclimatize ourselves with the old normal. Many people noticed that they have started to feel a strange reluctance and emotional discomfort to go out and interact with people. This is called Social Anxiety and for those with existing social anxiety symptoms, post-pandemic life and socialization are set to become really challenging.
People with Pre-existing Social Anxiety
For most people, health anxiety and anxiety regarding finances have been the major cause of stress during the COVID-19 lockdowns. With the regular vaccination drives, gradual relaxation of social restrictions and opening up of the economy, much of this anxiety and the signs of anxiety have been allayed.
However, people with pre-existing social anxiety symptoms may have a hard time transitioning back to the old normal. The period of being socially isolated has actually had a reinforcing effect on the symptoms of people with prior social anxiety. To such people, everyday social interactions are extremely stressful. They had welcomed isolation and the chance to do everything from the solitude of their homes. The thought of returning to a bustling office, having to deal with multitudes of people at work or during the commute and sitting in a crowded room for hours can trigger their anxiety and panic attacks.
Thankfully, due to widespread general awareness about mental health, the possibility of the onset of post-pandemic elevated levels of social anxiety has been accepted and efforts are on to help people with social anxiety deal with the new change that is about to come.
The Effects of Social Isolation on people who did not have Social Anxiety prior to the Pandemic
For people who are more accustomed to social activities, the long duration of isolation has led to more stress due to a lack of social interactions. Popular studies have found that such isolation can lead to reduced production of hormones associated with stress relief and can therefore harbour paranoia and negative emotions for many. Moreover, since most people have been restricted to conversations with their family members during these months of lockdown, post-pandemic socialization may lead to several conversational and interactional difficulties.
It has also been found that continued social isolation may lead to shrinkage of some parts of the brain that can even impair memory retention and recall. Further research has found that the emotional centre of the brain, the amygdala, becomes less active due to a lack of social interactions and this can lead to the development of social anxiety symptoms even among people who are extroverts.
Social Anxiety Symptoms
For people who did not have pre-existing signs of anxiety, this continued isolation can lead to the onset of social anxiety. This can also be accompanied by Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) characterized by the refusal to attend school, college or work physically, as well as some amount of Agoraphobia (fear of places/situations that may cause panic).
Regardless of whether you have always been reluctant to socialize or this disinclination to mingle with people happened recently, there are a few social anxiety symptoms that can help you understand whether you should seek professional help to reintegrate into society.
- Feeling uncomfortable in social situations and not knowing how to behave.
- Feeling too self-conscious and over-vigilant of your surroundings.
- Often overreacting to certain things in social situations.
- Being inappropriate in casual social conversations.
- The feeling of craving social interaction but feeling nervous when it really happens.
- Not being able to read body language and facial expressions well.
- Making excuses to avoid phone calls and/or meeting with friends.
- Often choosing solitary activities to do at home rather than indulging in social interactions.
- Sweating, difficulty in breathing, palpitations or even headaches
Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety Symptoms
- Develop a written plan of things that trigger social anxiety symptoms and write about your actions to avoid such triggers.
- When struck by the signs of anxiety, close your eyes and visualise a situation that can be calming and soothing for the brain.
- Whenever you develop health anxiety, practice deep breathing or grounding techniques for relaxation Mindfulness meditation is an effective technique that can help ease the symptoms of social anxiety.
- Engage yourself in mild to moderate physical exercises like Yoga or Pilates to help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Cuddling pets can be another effective coping mechanism for many who have them. This can release oxytocin hormones, which are related to happy emotional states.
Reintegration and Re-learning Social Skills
Since isolation and quarantine have made us feel comfortable only in the presence of our family members and it has been long since we met and interacted with anyone new. So, it can be quite awkward for some of us to meet new people post-pandemic. While avoidance of social situations will only lead to continued social anxiety symptoms, it is best to follow a gradual re-learning curve rather than force yourself into normalcy.
- Normalise leaving the house: You can do this by going out regularly for either a brisk walk or simply to get the groceries. This can also be done by reducing dependency on delivery services and instead of making the seemingly arduous journey of going out yourself to get things like medicines or other essentials.
- Back to Work/School: It would be good to recondition yourself to your workplace by driving over to the office and getting a good view of it to mentally prepare yourself. Similarly, for children, it would be beneficial to walk around the school campus for a few days to make them more comfortable with the idea of attending physical classes again.
- Plan Social Events: If you are experiencing moderate to severe social anxiety symptoms, your mental healthcare provider will probably advise you to plan a definitive number of social activities each day to reduce the mental burden.
- Other means of Socialization: Even if you are still stuck working from home, it is essential that you find means to socialise like calling up friends or even indulging in social multiplayer games online.
To cope with the signs of anxiety in a post-pandemic world, it is necessary that you take mental health seriously and identify the warning signs and social anxiety symptoms early on. This is something very common that anyone may experience, validating your emotions and sharing with your close ones can help. In case you need professional help, it would be beneficial to reach out to a registered clinical psychologist for therapy or even a psychiatrist can help you very well. Finally, the most important thing to take note of is to never push yourself into normalcy because these home-isolation months have rendered many people socially challenged and you are not alone in this emergent post-pandemic world.
Disclaimer: The information included at this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment by a healthcare professional. Because of unique individual needs, the reader should consult their physician to determine the appropriateness of the information for the reader’s situation.