Managing Social Anxiety After the Pandemic

By Tiffany Eve Lawrence

Driving through a crowded parking lot on the way to meet friends for a girls’ night out, Latoya Goodrich felt her breathing speed up. Her stomach began to hurt. She knew these were signs of an oncoming panic attack, but she didn’t want to back out of a social event (again).

Goodrich, a family caseworker in Woodbridge, Virginia, lives with PTSD, depression, and social anxiety. And the isolation of the pandemic made it even harder to stay connected to her friends. 

“I was terrified being out in public and just scared of COVID,” says Goodrich. Like many people, she lost family members to the disease, and the fear of dying from it only increased her social anxiety.

With social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, everyday interactions are sometimes really difficult because you often feel worried or self-conscious that other people are judging you negatively. Going to the grocery store, talking with a teacher, or even taking a trip to the mall can feel so overwhelming you might start avoiding them. 

“Social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental health condition in the United States,” says clinical psychologist Kevin Chapman, PhD. Over 15 million people in the United States live with the condition, and for many, the coronavirus pandemic worsened it.

With the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and lower case numbers, the world has opened up again. To many, this is an invitation to come out and play that’s long overdue. But if you’re like Goodrich, being around people again may still feel really scary—physically and emotionally. Staying holed up might seem safer.

But staying away from others doesn’t have to be your solution. If you want (or have) to be around other people or in public, there are ways to make this transition easier for you. Determining whether you might be experiencing social anxiety, identifying your triggers and planning ahead, and learning about good treatment options can all help you re-engage with the world in a way that feels more comfortable.

How do I know if I have social anxiety?

Though you can develop social anxiety at any time, symptoms typically start by the early teen years, says Junhong Cao, PhD, a New York City-based psychologist specializing in anxiety. “Unfortunately, the distinction between social anxiety disorder and shyness can be confusing,” she says, which means many young adults just get labeled as shy rather than getting help to manage their social anxiety.

Symptoms of social anxiety

  • Emotional symptoms include being afraid of:
    • Situations in which you worry you will be judged negatively. 
    • Talking or interacting with people you don’t know. 
    • Others noticing that you are anxious.

In general, says Chapman, social anxiety can make you feel less sure of yourself and or doubt your ability to do things. It can also lead to having automatic negative thoughts that the worst will happen. Experts call that “catastrophizing.” After social events, you may find yourself having repetitive thoughts or worries about how you handled certain situations.

  • Behavioral symptoms of social anxiety disorder can cause you to avoid talking to people and going to places like school, work, the mall, or the grocery store. You may even feel uncomfortable using a public restroom or eating in front of people.
  • Physical symptoms could mean your heart rate speeds up, or you might sweat, blush, shake, or have trouble catching your breath. You may get dizzy or have an upset stomach, like Goodrich.

Identify your triggers and negative thoughts

Triggers are the situations, places, and moments that make you uncomfortable and bring on your anxiety, and they’re different for everyone. Some people are triggered by having to make conversation, while others are OK until they enter a crowded area.

Chapman recommends writing down a list of situations that trigger your anxiety. “That gives you a sense of mastery and control,” he says. Once you identify your triggers, list the negative thoughts you automatically have in those moments that make you anxious. 

How can I manage my social anxiety?

Challenge your negative thoughts. Question whether the thoughts are true, and then “come up with alternative—and positive—thought about how things might go,” recommends Chapman. This allows you to get in front of your anxiety and helps your brain tell a different story.

Ground yourself. When we feel overwhelmed or like we are in danger, it’s a natural instinct to want to run away. But there are coping methods you can use to manage these intense moments, says Cao. “Grounding techniques are effective coping strategies that steer away from the distress and reconnect you with the present,” she says. 

Here are a few she recommends:

  • Breathe. Take slow deep breaths, which signals your nervous system to calm down.
  • Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. Use your senses to name five things you hear, four things you see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Doing this brings you out of the swirling worries in your head and into the present moment where you are actually safe.
  • Come up with an anchoring phrase. A simple saying can center and calm you. Cao recommends saying your name followed by simple facts about you, “I live in New York City. I’m 15 years old. I am a student at Bronx High. I like swimming. My favorite color is blue.”
  • Visualize a loved one. Picture the face of someone positive in your life. See them smiling at you or hugging you. Think of their voice, and imagine them telling you how much they love you and how proud they are of you. Now imagine them saying you can get through this tough time.
  • Practice self-compassion. Say kind things to yourself. (If it feels weird, imagine saying  them to a friend instead.) Some examples include: 
    • “This is not easy, but you’ll make it through.”
    • “You’ve dealt with this before, and you’ll get through it this time too.”
    • “You’re doing your best, and you can make it through this.”

What does treatment for social anxiety look like?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for social anxiety because “it helps teens and young adults understand that their thoughts, behavior, and emotions are all linked,” says Cao. When you change your unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviors, you can also change the emotions connected to your social anxiety. 

Other common treatments are exposure-based CBT in which you slowly get used to (with the help of a therapist) being in settings that might trigger your anxiety as well as mindfulness and medication. It’s important to find a therapist who specializes in social anxiety. They can help you figure out which treatment might work best for you. Cao says to talk to more than one therapist before making a choice, so you can pick the person you feel most comfortable talking to.

Questions to ask a potential therapist

  • What experience do you have in treating social anxiety disorder?
  • What training do you have in treating social anxiety?
  • What is your treatment approach? 
  • What would you suggest for my social anxiety?
  • Do you have experience treating people with a similar [age, background, religious affiliation, or race, etc.] to me?

Through therapy, Goodrich has become more comfortable going out depending on the location, but she has also learned to speak up if it feels like too much. When her friends invited her to a music festival recently, she told them, “I’m going to have to say no.” 

Learn more about managing and getting help for social anxiety.

Steps to start socializing again

Slowly easing your way back into being social gives you a chance to start navigating interactions at a pace that feels right for you.

  • Start with your inner circle. Reach out to family and close friends who you can be yourself with—anxiety and all.
  • Expand to your outer circle. These are people you know but would like to know better.
  • Plan to talk to a different person each day. Pick a friend, classmate, family member, or co-worker and reach out by phone, video chat, or in person. You may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it’s a small step to managing the anxiety that can come up with these interactions.
  • Organize a small meet-up with good friends. Choose a place where you’re comfortable to give you some control of the environment.

As you use these practices to manage your social anxiety, your voice of reason will become louder than the irrational fears, says Chapman. In the process, give yourself grace and acknowledge your small victories. Overcoming your social anxiety is a daily challenge, and you can be proud of yourself for taking any action that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. 


Learn more about anxiety and how you can get help or help someone else

Can I Be Anxious Without Having an Anxiety Disorder?

How Do I Know If I Have an Anxiety Disorder?

How Is Anxiety Treated?

How to Help a Friend or Loved One with Anxiety

How Can I Manage My Anxiety?

How to Build an Anxiety Toolkit

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