CHANGING the CULTURE of MENTAL HEALTH

Two women in masks protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic by bumping elbows.

Overcoming Pandemic-Induced Anxiety

I’ve been hearing it from my clients, young and old. I’ve seen it in my teenage daughters. I’ve even felt it myself: Social anxiety that simply was not there prior to 2020. Or at least, it wasn’t this bad. As mask mandates fall to the wayside, and concerts, parties and family gatherings ramp up, many of us are noticing a strange, gut-level reluctance to engage. Why is this happening? And what can we do to get over it? For that matter, should we try to get over it? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)

Why The Angst?

First, let’s discuss why your social anxiety might be higher than it was pre-pandemic. For more than two years, our brains have been on the receiving end of a near-constant message that people = danger. Going to large gatherings might kill you. Going to the grocery store could land you in the hospital. Throwing a birthday party may not harm the birthday kiddo, but it could very well kill Grandma and Grandpa. We are wired to avoid danger, and the best way to do that, for a significant chunk of time now, has been to avoid people. We can’t see the virus, so our brains have no way of knowing which people are a source of contagion and which ones are not. The best strategy to keep ourselves safe, therefore, has been to stay home and avoid everyone. And since the virus is invisible, we have no obvious sign that the coast is clear; we’re just being told it’s fine to go out now – well, sort of. Quite frankly, the lack of clear guidance or consensus on what is safe and what is not is not helping us manage our anxiety.

The Power of Inertia

To compound our threat-induced anxiety, most of us are way out of practice when it comes to keeping an active social calendar. After staying put for the better part of two years, social inertia (and, for some of us, inertia in general) has taken hold. It can feel effortful to make plans with a friend, or to gear up for a concert, and the longer you’ve gone without doing any of that, the harder it will be initially. If you have ever established a regular exercise routine, you know that going from zero exercise to regular exercise is way harder than maintaining an established routine. Same goes with socializing. And similar to exercise, the more socially averse you were before the pandemic, the harder it will be to convince yourself it’s worth the effort.

The Price of Isolation

But getting back out there is worth the effort. You see, we are not only wired to avoid danger, we are also wired to connect with others. Isolation is stressful, even if we don’t always notice the toll it’s taking. Research has shown time and time again that social isolation increases our risk for a whole range of mental and physical illnesses, including depression, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s. And while single individuals have been hit particularly hard by pandemic-induced isolation, many marriages struggled as well, as couples found themselves trying to rely on one other person to meet most or all of their social and emotional needs. In short, we need to get out of the house and spend time with people other than our immediate family, as much as our gut may be telling us to stay home.

Now For the How-To’s

So how do we combat the strong urge to stay home? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ignore your gut when it tells you to stay home. You may be thinking to yourself, “Is a therapist actually telling me to ignore my intuition?!” And yes, that is pretty much what I am suggesting. Why? Because when it comes to leaving the house and getting your social game on, your intuition’s Negative Nelly attitude is probably based on two years of “socializing = danger.” In other words, your brain is trying to protect you from danger, even though the danger may no longer be present. I’m not saying the pandemic is over and there is no longer any cause to worry. I am saying your gut may not be the best source of information at this point in the     pandemic. Instead, maybe consider your primary care doctor, or a nationally-recognized infectious disease expert (or both), to be a better source of information than your emotions when it comes to determining how safe it is to be social.
  1. Set a goal for yourself. To override both the emotional reluctance to socialize, and the pandemic-induced inertia that has taken hold, you will need to engage your thinking brain. The best way to do this is to set an intentional, measurable goal for yourself. To hold yourself accountable, write it down and/or tell someone about your plan. One of my clients told me she is saying “yes” to every (reasonable) social invitation she receives, whether she feels like going or not. I think that’s a great idea, at least in the near-term. Until you feel like your old interpersonal self again, creating some kind of plan like that might be your best way to jump-start your social life.
  2. Take baby steps. We are most likely to achieve big goals when we break them down into smaller, achievable steps. Maybe saying yes to every invitation is too much change for you right now. Instead, you could identify a couple of low-key, familiar activities you can achieve relatively easily. Get together with a couple of close friends. Go see a movie. Say yes to a friend’s birthday party. You will likely notice your anxiety going down with each outing. Before you know it, hanging out with people will feel much the same as it did before the pandemic (just maybe with the occasional face mask).
  3. Ask for help! Anxiety can be challenging to overcome on your own. Our brains are often quite skilled at convincing us to remain inside our comfort zones, even in the best of times – and these have not been the best of times. When your inner voice is screaming at you to stay home, having even one friend or family member     on hand to help you muscle past those moments can make all the difference. At risk of stating the obvious, it usually works best to find someone you trust, someone who can effectively and respectfully encourage you to follow through on your social goals.

Talking to a Therapist

If, after giving the above strategies a try, you find you are still struggling to get back on the social horse in this, talk to a therapist about your anxiety. They can teach you some anxiety-busting techniques to deploy in social situations and elsewhere. Going to your therapist’s office on a regular basis can even be a great first step toward your goal of transitioning from virtual interactions back to the real deal.

Dr. Terri Bly is a licensed clinical psychologist at Ellie Mental Health in Mendota Heights, where she helps adolescents, adults, couples and families overcome challenges and remove obstacles using a values-based, whole-body approach to mental health. Outside of work, Dr. Bly is passionate about traveling, theatre, music and parenting her two teenage daughters.