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As a clinical psychologist, people ask me a lot of questions about mental well-being, both on social media and IRL. I recently invited my Instagram followers to ask me questions through the stories feature, and I received a number of responses. Here is one recent query that stood out:
“While I’m excited about the chance to start socializing in real life again now that I’m vaccinated, I’m suddenly struggling with social anxiety. Going to the grocery store suddenly makes me feel awkward, and going to the office feels totally overwhelming. Is this normal? What is the best way to handle it? Should I force myself to go, or should I just take it slow?”
First of all, your feelings are normal! It’s been a long time since many of us have socialized, so it’s totally understandable that you might feel awkward starting it up again.
While I don’t want you to force yourself, if going to the grocery store feels truly impossible, what psychologists call “behavioral activation” might help you to take that first step. Let me explain:
How behavioral activation can be useful.
Just like the name implies, behavioral activation can help to activate certain parts of ourselves through behavior. If you can recall, staying inside all the time probably felt weird in the beginning of quarantine. Now, after engaging in lockdown behaviors for so long, that became your new normal. In other words, you activated your inner hermit. Once you try going out a few times, it will likely re-activate the part of you that actually enjoys being with your community.
If you were a social butterfly before the pandemic, that part of you will probably begin to awaken after a little bit of practice. If you thrived better in small groups, then continue to lean on close, trusted friends as you ease back in.
1. Scan for signs of social acceptance.
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When you go to the office, walk down the street, or encounter other settings where socializing often happens, I encourage you to scan for signs of social acceptance. This can help retrain your brain to focus on connections with others, rather than focusing solely on how awkward it feels to be out. Signs of social acceptance could be anything from eye contact, to open body language, to a simple wave hello. You might even try sending some friendly signs to others as well, as they may also be feeling apprehensive. This will give your brain something to do besides focus on your anxious inner monologue.
2. Listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
Another idea is to listen to a favorite podcast or audiobook on your headphones while you venture out: this will give you a sense of familiarity and control, while also providing a sort of “buffer” between you and the space around you.
3. Start slow, and give yourself time to process.
Finally, try not to get anxious about being anxious—feeling awkward in a new situation is normal! And at this point, formerly mundane activities, like grocery shopping or visiting the office, may actually feel new due to the lengthy lockdown. To mitigate some of the stress, try keeping your initial outings short.
In other words, ease into your revived social life: go into the office for just an hour and pick up just one thing from the store to limit the time spent in there. Try to practice slow, deep breaths when you’re out and about to help your body stay relaxed. You may also want to plan for extra sleep or downtime during your initial phase of returning, since the brain might need extra idle time to process the changes.
If you need even more support, don’t hesitate to seek out a therapist and check out my quarantine transition tips.