How to ease your way out of lockdown when you have social anxiety
For those of us with social anxiety, lockdown has been both a blessing and a curse. In a strange sense, it feels as if we are being rewarded for doing what we do best: keeping ourselves to ourselves and staying away from others.
But there are downsides to this, too. The prospect of having to socialise with others again after the best part of a year spent isolating is absolutely terrifying for those with social anxiety.
Accepting who I am
I have suffered from social anxiety myself since the age of eight, and after almost ten years of psychiatric help still find myself plagued with its symptoms nearly every day. I spent most of sixth form being sick in the morning because I was so anxious, and even now, I find the memories of awkward social interactions and immense loneliness painful to look back on. I desperately wish it could have been different, but I have accepted now to a certain extent that this is who I am, and that I’m not alone.
Despite still suffering with severe social anxiety, I had been thriving at uni. I could reinvent myself there.
I am now a second-year student at university in Wales. Despite still suffering with severe social anxiety I had been thriving at uni. It was almost as if I could reinvent myself there; nobody had to know I was the girl who had no friends at Sixth Form and couldn’t even speak in class.
Sadly, this came to an end when the UK went into lockdown last March. I had just settled in, and was suddenly being asked to return home where I had few friends but plenty of traumatic memories.
Yet at the same time, I was a little relieved. I no longer had to psych myself up to go to social events, or think of conversation starters halfway through seminars when I could feel myself retreating back to a silent place of safety. I could be myself around my parents and brother, and it felt good to know that by staying indoors and away from others, I was helping and doing my bit.
The challenge ahead
There is, however, one big challenge ahead for me and other sufferers of social anxiety: the inevitable return to normality. Being cocooned at home has meant we haven’t had to worry about going out and about and seeing people.
Despite lockdown taking away these pressures temporarily, the fear of having to eventually return to normality looms in the distance. The thought of having to bounce back to normal is always at the back of my mind. Although I can’t wait to go back to uni, I am reminded every day that soon I will have to socialise once again with people I haven’t seen in a long time, as well as meet many new faces.
However, I do think there is hope. My situation changed at the end of last April, when in an unusually brave move I applied for a job, and was successful. Since then I have been working as a support worker and find it incredibly rewarding. But it hasn’t been without its stresses. A month of not having to socialise with others took its toll on the few social skills I had developed at university, and I began to find myself sinking backwards into old habits.
I was so quiet when I started and spent a lot of shifts upset and angry at myself for not being able to act in a ‘normal’ way around my colleagues. They would joke together and I would try my best to join in, which I was occasionally successful at, but I still found it very hard to feel as if I truly fitted in. I began to panic and wondered whether maybe this is my life again now. Had my social skills really regressed to the point where I was back where I was at sixth form?
After a couple of months, I settled in much better. It took me a while to feel comfortable, but I came to the decision that I didn’t have much to lose from at least starting out by asking people a few small questions. I found that knowing a little about a lot of topics is a good place to start – that way you always have something to reference no matter where the conversation goes.
I start to panic a little inside whenever I’m reminded of the weekly shop I will have to start doing on my own again
Of course, I am still so worried about what will happen when lockdown does come to a complete end and we are thrown back into society. I start to panic a little inside whenever I’m reminded of the weekly shop I will have to start doing on my own again, or when I think of all the new people I am yet to meet. But I am optimistic.
It’s important to remember that many people with anxiety, or perhaps even just those who have come to enjoy lockdown life, most likely all feel the same way about returning to normal. On the plus side, for those of us out there with social anxiety, Covid has given us a fantastic way in to start conversations. Maybe just a simple “What did you get up to during lockdown?” could be the first step to making a new friend, or at least getting to know somebody.
I think we all deserve to be kind to ourselves, and for some people that might involve a gradual return to normality. Don’t force yourself to have to start again immediately – it’s OK to need to take time to readjust. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that kindness and compassion are what makes us human.