Social interactions can cause anxiety after a year of isolation

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Experts say there’s a reason many of us may feel anxious about returning to “normalcy.” Westend61 / Getty Images
  • Over the past year, isolation in the home has become our “new normal”.
  • Experts say the return to socializing indoors and outdoors can lead to anxiety for many people.
  • Taking a gradual approach will help most people regain their socialization.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

With the number of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 steadily increasing every day, the idea of ​​a return to “normalcy” doesn’t seem too far off. But if going back to some of the activities of our pre-pandemic lives seems intimidating to you, you are not alone.

Over the past year, we have continually adapted to a new reality, living through uncertain times and constantly fearing the impact of a deadly virus on our own health and that of our loved ones.

Forced to physically move away from family and friends, many Americans have spent the past year at home, with video calls becoming the primary form of socialization.

“Humans are creatures of habit, so initially adjusting to isolation at home was incredibly difficult, but now, a year later, we are used to the new normal,” Paraskevi Noulas explained, PsyD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

“Our adaptability is a double-edged sword, because now that we are used to isolating ourselves so much, it will be another transition to re-engage socially with others in person, both inside and out. outside. “

Experts say it’s natural to feel anxious and have some social dysfunction after going through a year of a global pandemic.

“Dealing with long periods of isolation can increase social anxiety,” said Leslie Adams, LCPC, CADC, case therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Even those who would naturally consider themselves more outgoing might have a hard time.”

The health concerns surrounding COVID-19 only exacerbate these feelings.

“The message was ‘stay away from people,’” Adams explained. “It goes against our very nature, which is wired to be in community.”

Relying primarily on video calls for socializing has also been a constraint.

“We missed subtle forms of communication in the process of ‘surviving’ the pandemic,” Adams said. These include eye contact, facial signals, and body language, which don’t necessarily show up on video and which humans rely on to connect with each other.

Once we get back to face-to-face social gatherings, experts say it will hit us both mentally and physically.

“Being outside of our bubble will be overwhelming because this is a sea change,” Adams said. “We will notice all the subtle things we don’t see or hear on video calls. We will feel like we are struggling, as if our senses are overworked, because they are. “

Anyone who hasn’t practiced social skills regularly is going to be rusty at this point, experts say.

“However, introverts and those with a diagnosis of social anxiety or health anxiety in particular felt ‘comfortable’ for the most part during the lockdown,” she said. “Their challenge comes now because they will be asked to ‘walk through fear’ again to increase their resilience. “

Noulas notes that we are all on a spectrum of introversion to extroversion. While people on the introverted side may have had an easier time with the pandemic in some ways, extroverts have struggled as well.

“The emotional toll of the pandemic on the social relationships of extroverts is probably greater,” she said. “However, they too have found ways to substitute virtual socialization so that they can tolerate the past year.

“Also keep in mind that, depending on the climate, many people may have been able to maintain social bonds outdoors for much of the year compared to people living in colder climates.”

Noulas says the best method therapists use to treat people with anxiety is exposure therapy.

“The concept is quite simple,” she said. “The more we expose ourselves to a situation, the more our mind and body adapt to it. We do this safely, gradually, with the support of others as needed, and we use deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help people be successful with each exposure. “

Adams also recommends this technique.

“The key will be for us to pick up slowly and expect some discomfort,” she said. “Keep the initial groups small and create larger groups over time. Keep the initial interactions short. Gradually increase as your comfort level improves.

If you live with social anxiety and find it particularly difficult to think about socializing again in person, Adams suggests planning a reward for doing difficult things.

Think of a reward like, ‘If I make a phone call to hook up with a friend, go for a walk with a friend, or any other hookup activity, then I’ll allow myself to do the thing that I think I’m going to miss,’ ” she said.

It could possibly be a lonely activity like reading, watching TV, going for a nature walk, or taking a hot bath, suggests Adams.

Another tip is to be kind to yourself.

“Keep your expectations low and be gentle with yourself and others,” Adams said. “Our reintroduction to socialization will be individual and will require individual thinking and preparation to return to a level of comfort that feels ‘right’ for that person. “

Noulas also recommends taking it slow. If you’re anxious about five social invitations in the same month, just switch to two or even one, she says.

“There’s no reason to force yourself into anything, but go at least one,” Noulas said.

“It has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone. We are all in the same boat, learning to navigate this new world, so we will all benefit from a little friendliness in learning to crawl, walk and run again.

She also recognizes that people with social anxiety, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, and trauma may need extra help.

“For those with clinical conditions that impact their ability to function in society, the transition back to the ‘real world’ will be difficult and we strongly recommend that they seek professional help to assist them. in the process, ”Noulas said.

If you or a loved one is struggling with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, help is available. You can:

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