Nervous about socialising again? Here’s how to handle the end of lockdown

Nervous about socialising again? Here’s how to handle the end of lockdown

After a year of Zoom calls and social distancing, we will soon be able to start mingling with friends and work colleagues again. Experts reveal what to do if the very idea brings you out in a cold sweat

If the limit of your conversational prowess this past year has been to grunt through Zoom meetings, discuss dinner plans with your flatmate, nag your children or make passive-aggressive comments to the cat, you may feel out of practice now that large gatherings look tantalisingly within reach. Perhaps you’ve quite enjoyed this period of government-mandated introversion, and dread the idea that you may be expected to socialise. Either way, if all goes according to plan, this era of social distancing may be starting to close. For those feeling a little daunted, here’s how to ease yourself back in.

Some social anxiety is normal

It is part of being human, says Emma Warnock-Parkes, a clinical psychologist and researcher on social anxiety disorder at Oxford University. “We’ve all been socially deprived this last year, and when you haven’t done something for a while, it can feel a bit strange going back into it.” The social rules may also have changed – do you hug? Do you need to wear a mask? “Some anxiety is understandable, so we need to give ourselves a bit of a break.”

You can’t lose social skills

“We acquire most of our social skills between the ages of zero and seven,” says the clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “Sometimes they’re hard to get at and we have to dig way down, but they’re there.” It may take a reminder of what is socially acceptable – have your table manners become sloppy? – but your fundamental skills won’t have withered irreparably. Also, remember that the changes to restrictions will be gradual, she adds. “You don’t have to brace yourself for something that feels like a tsunami.”

Build confidence gradually

Note down some small goals that you would like to achieve in the coming weeks, advises Warnock-Parkes. It could be “reaching out to people online, or arranging to meet someone for a walk, or doing an online course”. If you feel you are struggling, there are effective treatments, usually CBT, for social anxiety (in England, it can be accessed through your local Improving Access to Psychological Therapy service). “Social anxiety starts early in life – most people describe it starting in early adolescence – so if you’ve always lived with it, you often think it’s just who you are. But there are really good treatments that can really change someone’s life.”

Don’t avoid social situations

It might seem the easier option, but it won’t help long-term. “Avoidance incubates anxiety,” says Warnock-Parkes. It can also have negative consequences, such as missing job or friendship opportunities. “The world has shrunk around us and it’s comfortable, but it’s not good for us,” says Nadia Finer, a coach and the founder of the Shy and Mighty Society. “When you’re shy you have to, in order to move forward and experience life fully, practise bravery.”

But be mindful of what you can tolerate

As restrictions change, it’s reasonable to establish boundaries, says Blair. If you suspect your employer wants you back in the office five days a week, you could pre-empt that by coming up with a plan of why and how you could start with two. “Then you’re not on the defensive,” she says. Turning down an invitation to a large gathering once they are allowed, such as weddings or a milestone birthday, “is more than acceptable. I’ve said I’m not ready for things and nobody’s minded.” Smooth the way by meeting certain obligations, such as sending a present, but don’t offer an explanation other than saying you’re not ready. “Will you ever be able to go [to a big party]? Of course, but you don’t know when and that’s OK.”

Ease the pressure

“People who feel more socially anxious tend to do so because they put a lot of pressure on themselves, and that’s probably going to be the case as life opens up,” says Warnock-Parkes. Social interactions are not a performance, she stresses – they’re simply about being with other people. “One of the most common fears people have is that they feel they should be interesting all the time.” But many of us have had a pretty mundane existence over the past year. “Simply sharing how bored you’ve been feeling in lockdown is probably enough, because that’s other people’s shared experience, too.” Don’t assume that being anything less than a dazzling raconteur is a failure. “Having very high expectations of yourself – to always have something witty to say, or to never trip over your words – is a route to feeling socially anxious. These are totally impossible standards.”

Nobody can tell how you’re feeling

One worry for people with social anxiety is that it’s obvious. “People often assume, because their heart’s racing or they feel sweaty, that others can see that,” says Warnock-Parkes. “But we know from our research, when we look at how socially anxious people come across on video, is that this just isn’t true. What’s happening in your own body might feel magnified to you, but it’s often invisible to others.”

Focus outwards

Whether in large gatherings or one-on-one, if your focus is too much on yourself, you end up feeling self-conscious, says Warnock-Parkes. “Try getting out of your head and getting lost in what’s going on around you. Look around and notice what others are doing and saying, rather than scrutinising yourself. You will feel much better for it and quickly realise that other people are much more lost in their own world than they are focused on you.”

Think about your greater purpose, says Finer. “It takes the emphasis off you.” If you’re daunted by giving a presentation in person, instead of thinking about your own performance, “think ‘who are you helping with this work?’ If you are socialising, maybe it’s also for your kids’ benefit. That purpose helps us push past our own fears.”

Think about other people

They’re probably feeling uneasy, too. “Even extroverts are wondering: ‘Have I lost my skills?’” says Blair. “Rather than worry about yourself, you can think: ‘How can I reassure others? How can I make myself calm enough that they will feel at ease when they talk to me?’ That is a really good way to automatically calm yourself down – your fear reaction goes down – and then you can think more clearly.”

It’s not all your responsibility

Warnock-Parkes reminds us that “social interactions are a two-way street. Other people do not go into social interactions expecting the person they are meeting to perform or entertain them. Social interactions are just about being together.” When you over-analyse yourself, it gives you the impression that the other person is also doing that, when they’re not. “The more we can get out of our head and lost in social interactions, the more we ultimately enjoy them.”

Don’t write a script

Although it’s tempting to prepare topics of conversation, or one-liners, it’s actually counter-productive. “It makes you more self-focused, more anxious,” says Warnock-Parkes. “It takes you out of the interaction because you’re more in your head, thinking about your list of things to talk about, rather than just going with the flow of the conversation.” It can unwittingly make you appear aloof or uninterested in the other person. “Again, it puts way too much pressure on the interaction.”

And don’t dwell on it later

When we’re feeling socially anxious, we tend to give too much headspace to things we did or said, which gives us the impression the other person is also judging us – and finding us wanting. “Actually, other people have moved on to the next thing in their day, they’re not analysing your every word or action,” says Warnock-Parkes. “You’re the only one looking at yourself under a microscope.”

Celebrate small wins

“We can be mean to ourselves, particularly when we’re shy, and I don’t think we would talk to anybody else the way we talk to ourselves,” says Finer. Congratulate yourself for the small steps you’ve taken into the outside world.

Broaden your social life

Many of us will have discovered who our true friends are during this period and our social circle might be smaller than we imagined, which can be upsetting. If you want a wider social life, start by writing some small goals, says Warnock-Parkes. “What would you like to change? What would you like to be doing differently? Start now, before life opens up, to make some steps towards that – maybe reaching out to people online that you haven’t spoken to for a while, and arranging a few things in the coming weeks to build up your socialising again.”

Or maintain a lower-key social life – if you want to

Perhaps you have enjoyed a quieter, less frenzied life, with fewer people making demands on your time, and want it to continue. This is also perfectly valid. To demanding friends, advises Blair, “you say: ‘I have actually found that I want to proceed differently now. I still really want to see you but I won’t be going to big parties’, or whatever it is you want to say.” Do you want loads of friends because it would make you happier, or because you feel you should? “We’re so used to trying to gather ‘likes’ and followers, it’s been ingrained into us, but we don’t need hundreds of people around us,” says Finer. Introverts, she says, “prefer deeper relationships with fewer people. There’s not one picture of success. Often we’re shown this extrovert ideal and we’re all supposed to aim for that, and actually, that’s not for everyone.”

via theguardian

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