Managing social anxiety as we ease out of lockdown

This past year has been difficult for us all. Some people have been working from home since March 2020, and even now don’t know when they will return to their workplace. Then there are those who have been placed on furlough or made redundant – not forgetting the people in the vulnerable category, who have been shielding at home. For many people, spending so much time at home has made the idea of re-entering society feel overwhelming, with some experiencing social anxiety as a result.

Before going into why many of us are having anxious moments about socialising and returning to the workplace again, and how best to manage this – let us take a closer look at what social anxiety is.

What is social anxiety and what are the symptoms?

Social anxiety is not a new phenomenon. It has been recognised in one form or another since the days of Hippocrates who, in early 400 BC, described an exceedingly shy person as someone who “loves darkness as life” and “thinks every man observes him.” However, having social anxiety – referred to technically as Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – is so much more than being exceedingly shy. According to the NHS website, “Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations.”

Social anxiety extends beyond being nervous about a job interview, meeting your partner’s family for the first time, or going on a first date. Some of the most common symptoms of social anxiety can include; being afraid to talk to anyone at all, feeling fearful about going out, and panicking about the idea of attending social events.

Other symptoms might include:

  • Analysing how you acted in a social situation and identifying flaws in your interactions
  • Being worried about everyday activities like going shopping, going to work, and speaking on the telephone
  • Feeling like everyone is watching you
  • Having difficulty making friends
  • Not wanting to ask questions because it makes you nervous
  • Not wanting to make eye contact
  • Worrying about being the centre of attention
  • Worrying in case you humiliate yourself in public
  • Preferring to be alone

Social anxiety can also result in physical symptoms, such as blushing, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and/or experiencing panic attacks. Other physical symptoms of social anxiety may also present themselves as:

  • Difficulty with catching your breath
  • Having an upset stomach or feeling nauseous
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling
  • Your mind going blank

The above is, by no means, a complete list of the signs and symptoms of social anxiety – and it’s important to remember that not everyone’s experience of social anxiety will be the same. Some people may experience alternative or additional symptoms when thinking about or taking part in social activities.

The link between social anxiety and lockdown restrictions

One of the largest challenges we’ve had to face over the course of the last year is the restriction on socialisation. Some families and friends haven’t met up for over a year as they’ve felt uncomfortable doing so, even when restrictions have eased. Others have met with family during the time when the restrictions were lifted, only for those visits to suddenly stop when the lockdown was re-imposed. There have also been bubbles. But, who did you make the bubble with? And how many were allowed in the bubble?

The entertainment, hospitality and travel industries have also been hit hard. At various times over the past year, we’ve been able to visit some venues, but not others. For example, at times you could visit a pub, but whether you were allowed to sit inside or outside was determined by the latest Government guidelines. There have also been occasions when travel has been completely banned or restricted to UK travel only – while other times it was okay to travel, as long as you went into quarantine upon your return.

Dating is another area where the restrictions have had an effect, with face-to-face dates being off the cards for the majority of the last year. Every week, The Guardian sets a couple up on a blind date and follows up with an article to let readers know how they pair got on. But, since March of last year, the dates have fluctuated between virtual and socially distanced dates – some proving successful, and others not so successful. These dates have provided an interesting view into how the pandemic has affected and continues to affect our social lives.

Now as the country starts to return to something resembling normal, and people are facing the prospect of being able to return to work, and socialise more fully once again – a new health issue is beginning to appear. Some people are becoming anxious at the thought of having to meet up with others again, whether it be at work or in the wider community.

During the pandemic, we have been forced to limit our in-person social interaction, and make do with texting, making phone calls, or using online video calling platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. For many of us, it’s this, perhaps coupled with interactions with members of our own household, or a brief chat with our local delivery driver, that have become the basis of our social lives. So now, as lockdown eases, and we face the prospect of mixing with others in a range of different face-to-face settings – it’s perhaps unsurprising that this can feel overwhelming. For some, even just thinking about it can bring on anxious feelings.

YouGov has published the results of an interesting poll on people’s attitudes to the easing of lockdowns, which found that 49% of Britons said they felt that returning to normal life again would be difficult, 34% are worried about being out in public with people/crowds, and 16% are worried about socialising again.

Social anxiety: 4 common social situations and tips on how to cope

As we as a nation ease out of lockdown, life is gradually returning to something like normal. But what can you do to ease your fears if you’re experiencing social anxiety? First of all, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There are many people who are feeling anxious about socialising again in whatever form.

Let us take a look at some of the common social situations we will encounter as we come out of lockdown, and explore how we can counter any fears that we may have about these situations.

1. Meeting up with family and friends

For those that have been on their own during lockdown, meeting up with people you love and trust, can be a good way to ease back into socialising, and improve your overall sense of wellbeing. Though it might feel a little strange to connect with others again at first, by taking it slowly, your confidence will likely increase.

When making plans to meet up with friends or family, you could try the following steps:

  • Try not to feel pressured into believing that you need to meet up with family and friends just because that’s what everyone else is doing. Only do so when you feel ready. 
  • If you are meeting up for a meal or a drink, discuss with the person or persons you are meeting if you will wear a mask, how far apart you will sit, and whether or not you will try to avoid touching shared surfaces. Sometimes the fear of the unknown can increase feelings of anxiety, so knowing what to expect from each other in a social setting can help to put you at ease.
    If you can, arrange social plans for during the week when it’s quieter, rather than the weekend.
  • Meet one person at a time, as this can often feel more manageable.
  • Try to meet in an open area rather than a crowded one, like a town centre. Why not go for a walk somewhere quiet? Then as your confidence increases, venture into places where they might be a few more people around.
  • Whilst it might seem tempting to completely avoid meeting up with family and friends to prevent your anxiety levels increasing, this can often do more harm than good in the long term. Though it might not feel like it, one of the best ways to help your anxiety is to connect with others, as this can prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even with social distancing measures in place, it’s generally better to take smalls steps towards socialising again, than to stay isolated. When we become used to avoiding social situations, it can be easy to forget how much we stand to gain from connecting with others. To counter this, try to hold onto any positive or uplifting feelings you experience after socialising, and use them as a prompt for planning your next social arrangement.
  • Try not to schedule too many social plans all at once. Perhaps start by arranging to meet a friend or family member once a week to start with, while you ease back into social settings.
  • Consider opening up to a friend or family member about how you’re feeling. If they understand what you’re going through, then they’ll be less likely to pressure you into meeting up, and might also be able to offer you some support as you ease back into socialising again. It can feel natural to try and hide social anxiety due to fear of what people might say – but chances are, they’ll be others feeling the same way too.
  • When considering dating, you might want to check out our article 4 tips for dating in the current climate, which offers tips and advice on how to navigate the dating scene during these strange times. This includes deciding whether to make your first date with someone a virtual or in-person arrangement.

2. Returning to work

More companies whose workforce has been able to work from home over the last year, are now re-opening their workplaces. Some employers are doing a hybrid system of having their employees partially work from home and partially work in the office. While others will be expected to return to work full-time at some point.

Your place of work should have been made Covid-secure, so it’s always worth asking your employer what Covid-secure measures are in place. For example are there screens and socially distanced desks, with easy access to hand sanitizer?

If you feel comfortable talking to your employer, it can be helpful to let them know about your concerns about returning to the workplace. You might be able to arrange a phased return where you only attend work in-person a couple of times a week to start with. If you’ve only had the first dose of the vaccine, or are still waiting to have it, then it’s worth letting them know about that as well, in case you need to take time off to have it.

You could also try talking to your fellow co-workers about returning to work, and ask them their thoughts on it. How do they feel about commuting, whether by car or public transport? What are their views on returning to the workplace? You might find they have the same feelings about it as you do, and it can be comforting to feel as though you are embarking on this journey back to normality together.

It’s also important to keep in mind that it is quite normal to feel anxious about returning to work, and you should be patient with yourself as you do so. It will be strange at first; however it won’t be just you in that position, but all your work colleagues as well.

Although it can be tricky, try to focus on the positives of returning to your place of work. You’ll be seeing colleagues in person that you have only seen and worked with remotely for the past year. There will be fewer distractions at work making it easier to concentrate, and it will be easier to separate your work life from your home life.

It won’t happen overnight, but anxious feelings about returning to the workplace will slowly fade. Practicing self-care, like eating healthily, getting a good night’s sleep, and taking regular exercise can help.

3. Traveling on public transport

If you’re feeling anxious about the idea of using buses, trains or other forms of public transport again, then it’s a good idea to try and travel outside of peak times wherever possible. If you are using public transport to get to work, remember that not everyone will be back at their workplace yet – nor will everyone be returning at the same time – so it might not be as busy as it used to be. When looking for a seat, it’s best to give yourself enough room as possible, as this can help you to feel more at ease. And while face masks are still mandatory on public transport at the moment, it’s important to remember that even if this changes – it will be your choice whether you continue to wear one or not.

Whether you’re travelling for work or pleasure, plan your journey and allow plenty of time including time for delays, to allow yourself to stay as relaxed as possible. You might also want to have some music or an audiobook to listen to on your journey – or perhaps you could carry a book or newspaper to read if you find that helps distract from any feelings of anxiety.

If you can, try not to worry too much about what other people around you on public transport are saying or doing. It can be tempting to assume that others are looking at you, but people on public transport are nearly always glued to their smartphones, reading the paper, or fast asleep! And even if you do notice someone is looking at you, there’s no reason to assume that they’re thinking anything negative – sometimes, our inner critics just like to convince us otherwise. Challenging negative thoughts can be difficult, but can become much easier with practice. You might want to have a read of our article, How to learn the skill of optimism, to find out more.

4. Visiting the shops

Now that all non-essential shops are open, you might feel that you want to visit them, but that the thought of doing so is making you anxious. However, there are things you can do to ease your anxiety. For example:

  • Choose to shop at a time of day that won’t be quite so busy, and in shops that have more space for shoppers. Early morning or later in the evening are often good times.
  • Do one big shop rather than several smaller ones, until you feel comfortable visiting the shops more regularly.
  • Take a moment to wipe down the handle of your basket or trolley with sanitizer. The majority of the supermarkets do provide sanitising gel and wipes for you to use.
  • Use contactless payments, rather than cash, whenever possible, to limit unnecessary physical contact with others.
  • Remember that if you venture out and feel that the experience becomes too overwhelming, you can always leave and go back home. It can also help to familiarise yourself with some deep breathing exercises, as these can come in useful if you ever feel panicked, and need to take a moment to reset yourself.

Final thoughts...

It’s important to remember that you are in control of how quickly you choose to go out and socialise again. If you’re feeling anxious about the idea of heading out into the world again, then it can help to take small steps, meet with one friend rather than a group, go to shops that are less crowded, and at a time that isn’t so busy. It will often be easier to adapt to the easing of restrictions if you take things at your own pace, than if you make large rapid changes to your routine. Try to have some idea of what you would like to do socially and set yourself some small goals – but whatever you choose, it’s best not to put too much pressure on yourself.

If you can, it’s worth thinking back to the last time you had fun with friends, so you will remember what you can look forward to. Similarly, it’s best to avoid thinking about past social situations that made you feel uncomfortable, as this might put you off wanting to make any new plans. Although social anxiety can make us feel as though we want to stay at home and hide, it’s usually not helpful to avoid social situations completely, as this can keep us feeling lonely and isolated. With that said, if you want to say no to some things that you don’t think you’ll enjoy, or don’t feel ready for, then that’s okay too. It’s also worth considering telling those you trust about your reasons for wanting to take things slow so that they can help to support you – plus, you might also discover that you are not the only one who is feeling anxious about socialising again.

There are things that may be different in the days ahead, and it can be difficult to acknowledge that we don’t know how the future is going to pan out. Will hugging each other start to become normal again? Will people continue to wear masks and sanitise their hands beyond the time that the medical experts tell us it is safe to stop doing so? However, one thing that we can take control of is how kind we are to ourselves as we navigate this transition – and with the rollout of vaccines, we can hopefully look forward to a brighter future.

Where can I turn for additional help and support with social anxiety?

While we hope that some of the tips in this article will be helpful, there’s no shame in seeking help if you feel that you are unable to cope with socialising as lockdown restrictions ease.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, and feel unable to cope, then it’s worth making an appointment with your GP. They can talk you through your options, and if needed, refer you to other services. Mental health charity, Mind, has a very informative article about talking to your GP about your mental health, which you can read here.

You might also find it helpful to read our articles 10 things you can do to help yourself through feelings of depression, 7 tips for coping with stress and anxiety and 7 ways to tackle feelings of loneliness.

Are you struggling with social anxiety? Do you have any additional tips on how to cope? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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