As vaccines begin to roll out and the management of COVID-19 enters our horizons, so too does the resumption of life as we knew it—or at least, something close. However, lockdowns, social distancing, and other isolating consequences of the pandemic have put a strain on a number of social relationships. Many people have reported feeling lonely, depressed, and disconnected from those around them since the onset of COVID-19 precautions (Buzzi et al., 2020). Additionally, a number of us have likely acclimated to working from home and experiencing our careers through the lens of a webcam over some video platform. For those of us who may have found social encounters stressful, this might have even been seen as a benefit; whether or not you have struggled with social anxieties in the past, adjusting to a change back to in-person school or work can be difficult. We have all grown pretty familiar with experiencing these things from the comfort of our own home, but when you no longer have the option to turn off your camera at a moment’s notice, navigating the social aspect of the workplace might feel daunting. Though these preoccupations are absolutely normal given all we have experienced, it is still important to understand where they come from and how we can combat our nerves.
Social anxiety is defined as an intense discomfort and self-consciousness about potential negative evaluations from others or the possibility of embarrassing oneself (Weissbrod & Colangelo, 2020). Many of us have experienced these fears at one point or another in our lives, but they become a problem when they prevent us from being functionally productive in the workplace and/or cause consistent distress. Of course, things like important meetings and presentations might give anyone the jitters, but there are a number of non-event-related factors that contribute to longer-term and more hindering presentations of social anxiety. A hallmark of social anxiety is the presence of one or more cognitive biases that influence the way we interpret social interaction (Chen et al., 2020). A hostile attributional bias, for example, refers to one’s tendency to interpret ambiguous interactions as aggressive, therefore increasing one’s apprehension to socializing. Another cognitive bias that contributes to social anxiety is sensitivity to feedback. For example, a 2020 study revealed that low self-efficacy and high reliance on recognition were reliable predictors of social anxiety (Pitcho-Prelorentzos et al.). The fear that another person will evaluate you or your work negatively may make you less likely to seek out connection for fear that you will be judged or rejected (Everaert et al., 2020). Even without these cognitive biases, avoidance itself can reinforce social anxieties and phobias; without having the chance to experience a positive social interaction, feelings of social anxiety can only reinforce themselves (Asher et al., 2021). In contrast, stepping out of your comfort zone is a way to show yourself that social time isn’t as intimidating as it feels.
Another important factor in social anxiety is perceived control; anxiety disorders are often characterized by the fear of losing control and/or extensive efforts to maintain control at all times. In terms of social anxiety in particular, lower perceived control has been associated with greater anxiety and poorer performance and evaluation of social interaction (Kelly-Turner & Radomsky, 2020). We tend to have much more control over our self-presentation and social environment in virtual spaces than we do in physical ones, so this fear of losing control is likely a common factor contributing to returning to life-in-person. Interestingly, social anxiety has also been found to be associated with a bias in the physical distance between persons; that is, people with social anxiety tend to perceive other people as much closer to them than they actually are (Givon-Benjio & Okon-Singe, 2020). In a general sense, it’s overwhelming when people around you are in your space—following the social distancing practices associated with COVID-19, however, this biased spatial perception can further increase anxiety to being in-person as we have grown accustomed to keeping ample distance between one another.
Finally, social anxiety is a product of negative self-cognitions and poor emotional regulation. The combination of comparing oneself to others, perceiving this comparison as having a negative result, and lacking the skills to regulate or change these perceptions leads to a desire to avoid socialization. Sometimes, those who experience social anxiety tend to dissociate (or “check out”) from the conversation at hand to cope with feelings of anxiety. However, a 2021 study found that better emotional regulation skills among socially anxious participants are associated with less dissociative behaviors (Cook & Newins). Views on emotional control and emotional malleability—the perception of emotions as flexible vs. fixed—also impact social anxiety; in a study on individuals diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder, those who viewed emotions as more flexible were more likely to engage in cognitive reappraisal strategies to reduce interpretation bias and manage negative reactions to social interactions (Goodman et al., 2020). This flexible viewpoint is additionally important in the realm of negative self-perception, because the ability to engage in reappraisal strategies breaks the perpetuation of this poor self-image (Everaert et al., 2020). In contrast, individuals who are less-able to regulate their emotions and focus on flexibility tend to struggle to break out of the cycle of negative self-talk and, consequently, social anxieties.
The best first-step to getting over anything that makes you nervous is simply to get it over with. In the case of social anxiety, continuous avoidance of social situations only serves to reinforce the anxiety. Avoidance and anxiety often create a cyclical relationship; being anxious about a situation makes you more likely to avoid it, in turn increasing future anxieties. In a 2021 study, this pattern was specifically shown in the case of social anxiety such that both social anxiety and avoidance behaviors influenced one another (Asher et al.). As nervous as it might make you, practicing social interaction (however short) can help build confidence and allow you to reinterpret and reduce anxiety.
As noted above, poor emotion regulation can play a role in the experience of social anxiety. Therefore, increasing the capacity to recognize and regulate difficult emotions can be helpful for managing social anxiety. A common technique for improving emotion regulation is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Focusing on challenging and changing cognitive distortions and behaviors, CBT works to develop personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. Not only has CBT been shown to be effective in improving emotion regulation, but it has also been shown to reduce social anxiety specifically (Jazaieri et al., 2017). Explicitly engaging with emotions and intrusive thoughts is helpful for better understanding them and, in turn, for identifying strategies to manage or reduce them in the face of stressful situations.
Given the role of cognitive biases and negative self-image in social anxiety, adjusting the way you perceive yourself and the world around you may reduce social anxiety. For example, mindfulness exercises have been shown to reduce the severity of social anxiety (Singh et al., 2020). Learning to anchor yourself in the present and take things as they come rather than spending your energy stressing about every “what if” that comes your way can help take the pressure off when reentering in-person social spaces. Self-compassion has also been proven to be effective in reducing social anxiety; practicing compassion with yourself involves breaking habits of negative self-talk which, in turn, builds confidence and prevents anxiety (Makadi & Koszycki, 2020). Finally, working to develop improved self-awareness can help combat fears of the perceptions of others.
Because such a large factor in social anxiety is fears and biased cognitions about how you appear to others, an effective strategy is to simply put yourself in their shoes. If you were meeting someone for the first time or attending a presentation, would you make the same judgements or assumptions about other people as you fear they would make about you? Would you even notice the small details that you obsess about in yourself? The answer is probably no. This type of role-reversal has been proven to be effective in combating intrusive thoughts in social anxiety; in a 2021 study, participants engaged in a social roleplay after having recorded their anxieties about the situation and what they worried their counterpart would think of them. After the initial roleplay, they either repeated the exercise in the same roles or switched perspectives. Those who engaged in the switching condition were less likely to rate their previous anxieties as believable or probable than were those who didn’t switch (Abeditehrani et al.).
Anxieties of any kind stem from fear of losing control, as noted previously. During COVID-19, a number of people may have gotten comfortable with the increase in control associated with working from home, making returning to life in-person feel all the more daunting. Although there isn’t a way to replicate that level of control outside of a home environment, trying to concentrate on the things you are in charge of can help avoid catastrophizing social interactions. Set boundaries with employers and coworkers in terms of your schedule and your needs for times of focus vs. more relaxed “water cooler chats.” Even if you can’t mute yourself or turn off your camera as you may have done using video meetings, remember that you can excuse yourself from a conversation at any time. Being mindful of the small things that you can do to make yourself feel more at ease when entering a workspace allows you to focus your energy on productive strategies rather than stressing about that which is out of your hands.
As ironic as it may seem, finding social support in times of transition can be incredibly beneficial to your overall wellbeing, especially in the realm of social anxiety. A recent study found that sales workers with social anxiety performed better in the workplace if they had a greater degree of perceived support from their supervisors (Lussier et al., 2021). Whether the support comes from within your workplace or outside of it, the perception of support has been shown to reduce numerous kinds of psychological distress—social anxiety included (Harandi et al., 2017).
Above all else, remember that any kind of transition or adjustment will take some time. After all that we have been through in the last year, return-to-normal anxiety is anything but uncommon. As mentioned before, showing yourself compassion is essential to reducing social anxiety, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself to bounce back right away. Allow yourself the time and space to transition without being too hard on yourself if you find it difficult. Any small progress forward is better than nothing. Take it day-by-day and meet yourself wherever you’re at.
When trying to adjust to any lifestyle change, it can be difficult to know where to start. The LIFE Intelligence self therapy app offers free CBT to promote health in all areas of life (social, personal, professional, etc.) and can be particularly useful in assuaging your anxieties in social settings. This self-care app consists of a comprehensive emotional management toolkit, as well as 9 “missions” or topics to improve your self, career, and relationships. In Mission 2 you’ll learn self-awareness, helping lead you towards a more realistic (and less anxiety-driven) understanding of your self-perceptions and how you are perceived by others. Later, Missions 6, 7, and 8 teach you communication and interpersonal skills so that you can approach any cubicle or conference room with confidence. LIFE also offers a mood wheel to help you track and manage your emotions, providing science-backed strategies to turn negative emotions into a productive experience, aiding your emotion regulation abilities. Combining these with a number of other research-driven lessons, LIFE Intelligence will have you on the path to progress in no time.
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