I’m writing this in early June 2021 – in a few days’ time the government will be announcing whether the final stage of lockdown social distancing restrictions will be lifted fully. The news has been full of speculation as to whether this will happen or not and therefore all my social plans for the rest of the year have been written in pencil (yes, I still use a paper diary!), as I await the green light for them to go ahead, or not, as the case may be.
For some they’ll be hoping and praying for the green light, whereas there will be others who may well be hoping for the red or amber light – because they have felt safer with less social contact and aren’t looking forward to having to go back to the workplace or attend certain social events. There may be several reasons for this, and whilst the risk of Covid transmission is the obvious one, it’s not always the reason. Social anxiety is a well-known form of anxiety, and many people suffer from it. It can cause you to feel stressed and panicky as you enter any form of interaction with another, even just a phone call.
I thought I’d write a blog about social anxiety because lockdown easing is bringing this subject to light and if you’ve read this far it may be because it’s something you’re concerned about for yourself, or someone you know. I’m going to start by addressing some concerns about fear of Covid. Firstly, you may have experienced first-hand what Covid is like, you or someone close to you has contracted and recovered from it, or you’ve lost someone to it and are grieving. Or perhaps you or those around you have conditions which increase vulnerability to it. Maybe you’ve been keeping an eye on the news and seen the reality of what this illness can do and simply want to minimise the potential risk. No matter the reason, what’s important is the level of risk you perceive in the event of having to be around other people.
There may be some strategies that would be useful to help with this such as finding out from your workplace what their procedures are for your return to the workplace, such as: are there one-way systems? Hand sanitiser stations? Limits on numbers of people in any room/meeting? If you are aware of the procedures then this may help you calculate the risk more realistically, as well as reduce the stress of being confronted for not following any rules. Also, are you required to return to the workplace for all your working hours? Or is there a possibility for hybrid working? Many companies are looking into this as it suits their purpose of reducing numbers in the office (and it can save on office rent costs too). Also, can you continue to use home delivery or click and collect for your shopping for a little while longer, perhaps until all adults are fully vaccinated?
A significant aspect of increased socialisation in these times is often related to the prospect of change. Many have grown comfortable with working from home, seeing people online, (and this is particularly so for those who are introvert as social interaction tends to drain their batteries). Adjusting to a new way of working and socialising can feel daunting. However, I would ask a question of you here – how long did it take you to get used to working from home / not seeing many people socially? I ask this because humans are quite good at adapting to change and we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for this. When we enter into new routines we can adjust quite quickly and you might find that after a few days or weeks, being around more people will feel like the norm again.
So that’s a few thoughts related to Covid concerns, but what if your social anxiety is more deep-rooted? Something you’d experience regardless of the pandemic? Social anxiety can often stem from a traumatic early experience such as speaking in public, maybe something like answering a question in class and the other kids laughing at your answer, or experiencing bullying, either at school, home or in the workplace. These experiences can make you feel that being around others is an unpleasant opportunity for public humiliation, or harsh judgment. It can also stem from excessive criticism from those closest to you, parents, siblings, teachers etc. where your self-esteem and self-worth is diminished and therefore assume that you’re not acceptable to other people and don’t fit in.
Social anxiety can cause panicky feelings about the thought of social interaction, you might try and avoid them all together, or stand at the back as far from the limelight as you can possibly get, or you may find yourself not saying anything in group conversations, avoiding eye contact or finding somewhere private to sit to avoid the staffroom or canteen. The problem with avoidance behaviours such as these is they don’t address the problem, they reinforce it, because the belief continues to be held that ‘I must stay away, avoid, or keep myself to myself as much as possible because otherwise I’ll be criticised / laughed at / humiliated’.
For most however, avoiding social interaction is difficult, if not impossible, and no matter what your personality type, we are all built for relationship, even if that’s with a small number of family members or friends. For many with social anxiety, they’d love to be more confident and have a good social life, but the anxiety holds them back. The anxiety can take the form of a sense of dread on the commute into the work, rehearsing conversations and then intensely analysing them afterwards in case you may have said something stupid or upset someone. It could look like taking ages to get dressed for a party because you can see potential criticism in every outfit you try on and would much prefer to give up and stay home. It could look like checking through the windows to make sure the neighbours aren’t around as you head to your car on your way out, or walking through the high street / down the office corridor with your eyes on the floor so no-one can catch your eye and start a conversation.
A lot of social anxiety stems from your beliefs about yourself and how you think other people perceive you. If you have a strong inner critic where you’re telling yourself that you’re uninteresting, unattractive, awkward etc. then that belief is likely to be projected on to others i.e. ‘I think _____ about myself therefore other people must too, so I must try and protect myself from their judgement and dislike of me by staying home, besides, they won’t want me there anyway’. You assume that your thoughts are other people’s thoughts of you, and this can keep you disconnected and lonely. For more information on this, I’ve written an earlier blog called ‘mind-reading’, so I’d recommend this for further information on what it is and how to address it: https://www.bethanythorntoncounselling.co.uk/news/article/mind-reading.html
Alternatively, if you don’t have the option to stay home, perhaps it’s a works function that you’re expected to attend, or a family wedding, then the social anxiety can involve being too focused on yourself – thoughts such as: how am I coming across to others? Have I said too little / too much? Will they like how I look? What’s my body language projecting? Rather than focusing on enjoying and engaging with the topic of conversation. This can be exhausting, constantly analysing every bit of your words and behaviour, and worrying if they’re acceptable or not.
When you’re feeling bad about yourself you can also experience the ‘spotlight effect’ where you think that everyone is looking at you and judging you. For example, walking down the high street can feel awful because you think other people are looking at you and criticising you in their minds or gossiping about you with the person they’re with. Or it can feel like all eyes are on you when entering a party and that everyone is judging your appearance etc. I often ask people who describe this feeling of everyone looking at them – how much time do they spend looking at and critiquing the other people they see on the high street / at the party? (The answer is usually ‘barely any time at all’, and if asked, my answer to this would be practically nil, because I’m too busy wrapped up in my own thoughts of what I’m doing, what shop I want to go to next, what’s happening later etc. to spend any time thinking about anyone I pass). The spotlight effect can often be a result of any experience of public humiliation, yet it can be addressed and reduced with support and counselling.
To address this, it’s important to explore your beliefs about yourself (and others), where they’ve come from and how they’ve been holding you back and find helpful strategies (often taken from cognitive behavioural therapy theories) to analyse the self-criticism and come up with more realistic beliefs that are rational and fair to yourself.
If anything in this blog sounds familiar to you and would like some support to help you become more comfortable and confident in social settings, then feel free to get in touch, I’d like to help. If coming to see me face-to-face in my counselling room doesn’t feel comfortable, then we can either have a session online (video or audio call) or over the phone – whichever feels best for you.