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.
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.
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.