For the past year we have largely been confined to our homes, a lot of us working from home and only going out for regular exercise. Our social lives have been depleted, we’ve not been able to see friends and family and generally life may have become quite repetitive.
As we come out of lockdown there will be mixed feelings, some people may feel really ready to socialise again and are already filling their calendars with get togethers and events. For others, they might be more cautious and be worried about feeling anxious in group settings.
Perhaps you’ve always found social gatherings difficult and so the lockdowns gave you permission to not have to socialise. By having to keep ourselves to ourselves anxiety has not been triggered or challenged and so confidence in social settings may have reduced. The prospect of now going into situations where there are more than two people may feel quite daunting.
Because we’ve not had much going on in our lives we may start to worry that we have nothing to talk about. Or perhaps our appearance has changed a little, we’ve put on some weight, or we’re not as toned as we were or our hair is more grey than it was, and so we are worried we will not look physically good enough. Or perhaps we are worried whether our friends will still want to see us after all this time.
These are normal thoughts that we may experience but they aren’t helpful and we may have to work at keeping them in check. It’s worth reminding ourselves that thoughts are not facts and whilst we may have these thoughts about ourselves it doesn’t mean that others are having these thoughts about us.
We’ve all been socially deprived over the last year and when you haven’t done something for a while it can feel uncomfortable going back into it, its normal to feel some level of anxiety. Just as the more we avoid something the harder it becomes to do. Be kind to yourself, don’t expect yourself to be able to go straight into large social gatherings. It’s better to return to socialising in a graded way. If it feels too big it’s ok to say you’re not ready.
When we are feeling socially anxious we can start to worry about how we come across to others and feel like we’re in the spotlight. The more we focus on ourselves the more self conscious we can become and the more this happens the more we end up in our own head. The more we start to judge ourselves and the more difficult it becomes to interact with others. We can’t be concentrating on what is going on around us or what others are saying if we’re so busy in our heads judging ourselves. Try shifting your focus onto others, paying attention to what’s being said rather than your internal dialogue. By shifting your focus of attention outwards to others, from internal to external, you can keep more relaxed.
A common fear to have when socially anxious is thinking you should be interesting all of the time. How realistic is this? particularly given that none of us have had very interesting lives recently. Take the pressure off yourself to perform, it’s about being with others, not entertaining others. Share how bored you’ve been, I’m sure others will have been to. Try to reduce those high expectations of yourself.
Another fear is to think that others can see your anxiety however the research tells us that this is not the case. What feels magnified and obvious to you, such as shaking or sweating, isn’t visible to others.
It is also unhelpful to prepare things to talk about as this again puts pressure on yourself to perform and maintains self focus. If you’re so busy thinking about the list of things you’ve prepared you’re not going with the flow of conversation, you become more self focused and can appear uninterested in what’s being said or aloof.
Lastly don’t allow yourself to replay or dwell on what you said or did later. No one else will be giving a second thought to what you’ve said or done, they will have moved onto the next thing in their day. You’re the only one analysing yourself and giving yourself a hard time.
Remember social interactions are a two way street, it’s not all your responsibility. The more we can focus on the social event rather than ourselves the more we are likely to enjoy the social interaction.
Rebecca Mead is an accredited, registered and experienced Psychotherapist offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) to individuals adults. Rebecca is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.
Further reading by Rebecca Mead –