• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

How to Socialize During the Pandemic While Managing Your Anxiety

Updated: Jun 30

I think we can all agree that this is been a difficult year in many ways. What seems to be the hardest about surviving this coronavirus pandemic is the isolation that we all face. Normally, when something bad happens to a whole group of people, they can take solace in each other’s social support and comfort. However, that highly infectious nature of the coronavirus has prevented us from doing that safely.


In addition, we had previously taken for granted that we can see our family and friends whenever and however we wanted. However, for those of us to believe that we can become infected by and infect other people, we have had to be careful during this time. The idea of catching or spreading a life-threatening illness is not appealing.


For many people, the need for safety has overridden the need for social connection. This change has affected not only how we socialize, but also how we go to work or school. Many of the ways that we come into contact with other human beings have been shut down for health and safety reasons.


Don't be in denial...


Earlier in the pandemic, some young people got a bad rap for being “super spreaders” by having large parties during the pandemic. Last summer, in fact, saw a spike in infection rates in Los Angeles County, in part due to some people who defied the social distancing and health recommendations. However, I have spoken with many young people who are frightened about going out in public.


This is just one more fear on top of other fears about graduating high school or college, planning their career, being rejected by lovers or friends, etc. Here I will share with you some ideas I have that fit the current circumstances of our pandemic.



With the wider availability of vaccines for the coronavirus, there is probably less risk of getting infected or spreading the illness than there was last year. Nonetheless, it is still recommended, at least in California, that people wear masks in public spaces and that we avoid close contact with people. Unfortunately, this can pose a challenge when we are trying to get together with our friends.





Get Outside!


Paying out in somebody’s bedroom or having large parties is probably not a great idea, especially inside. Luckily, it seems that the weather is cooperating this spring with doing outdoor activities, such as:

· Hanging out at a park;

· Hiking;

· Playing sports that do not involve close contact, such as tennis;

· Bicycling;

· Skateboarding, riding scooters or walking;

· Horseback riding, etc.


For the time being, it’s probably good idea to wear masks if you are in a situation where there’s more human contact. Please follow whatever guidelines for your area the CDC recommends. Obviously, we still need to be careful, as we are not quite out of the woods in terms of infection risk.


Even if you don’t feel vulnerable to illness or to spreading it, you might still have some anxiety about socializing after all this time of being alone.





Out of practice?


Hopefully, you have kept in touch with your friends and family by text, email, or phone, or perhaps by playing video games together online. However, even these methods of staying in touch can be difficult when mental health issues arise.


Sometimes, when we are feeling depressed, we lose touch with our friends and family. There may be some hurt feelings that need to be mended before that person enthusiastically spends time with us. Even when you’re feeling depressed, it’s a good idea to still get yourself to contact at least one friend per week, even just to say “hello, I’m not ready to talk yet, but I care about you and I’m alive.” That way, all of your friends don’t give up and go away.


It can also be hard to keep in touch with people when we feel self-conscious or socially anxious. Avoidance may feel good in the moment because we do not have to feel uncomfortable doing what makes us feel awkward. However, in the long run, it just exacerbates our loneliness and isolation.


So, if you have not talked to you friends for a while, you might consider contacting them and letting them know that you are among the living, and that you’re sorry for not contacting them before. See how they respond; if they are friendly and open, suggest getting together in person.


Leery of the virus?


People have varied opinions of how they wish to protect themselves from the coronavirus, and even if they are open to it, their families might not be ready for them to socialize. If the person is not open to meeting in person, please do not take this personally. Anyone can get the virus and/or spread it.


If they are open to meeting in person, you can see how it feels to be in their presence. You don’t have to be chatty all the time; you can just enjoy being in their presence and remembering how nice it is to share physical space with another human being.


The less pressure you put on yourself and others to socialize perfectly, the better. This is especially important to remember, since we been out of practice for a while and we have not had many opportunities to socialize. Just like any other skill, e.g., riding your bike, feeding yourself, etc., socialization is a learned skill. We can get rusty after we have practiced for a while.


I remember trying to use my high school Spanish with someone after years of disuse, and having the recipient of my unfortunate efforts suppress a laugh because I was so unskilled at that moment. Luckily, when we practice something more and keep it on our minds, we do better.




Crystal ball thinking


We humans love to think we know what’s going to happen yet and what other people are thinking about us. This is especially true with social anxiety, which makes us believe that we are the constant negative focus of other people’s opinions and thoughts.


We make all kinds of assumptions about other people based on our own insecurity that we project onto them. We might also misinterpret body language and think that we have the whole story. Some people mistake other people’s shyness for discussed and rejection, which leads to painful assumptions and social withdrawal.


Cognitive behavioral therapists have a name for this type of thinking: automatic negative thoughts, or cognitive distortions. One of the more popular ones is crystal ball thinking, where we think we know what is going to happen in advance. This is often based on very flimsy evidence in the real world and creative, but misguided use of our imaginations.


Assumptions


Along similar lines, we often assume that we can read other people’s minds and that they aren’t happy with us. Mind you, these are usually total strangers who had never met us before and have no stake in our lives. Somehow, they gain disproportionate importance inside our minds.


Our assumptions that they don’t like as causes great emotional upheaval. Luckily, we can become aware of our misguided belief in our psychic abilities, and that all strangers, friends and family are against us.


If you do this, you’re not alone. There are many people who think that they are protecting themselves from social rejection by assuming the worst. The problem is that they miss out on potential friendships and greater peace of mind when they do this.


If someone is looking in your direction and they have a neutral or disturbed face, why should you assume that it has anything to do with you? Even if they are upset with you for some unknown reason, why not let that be their problem instead of yours?




Thicker skins


Part of being out in the world involves developing a thicker skin. We’ve been cooped up in our homes for so long, we might forget that what other people think of us is none of our business. We get out of the habit of shrugging off audit or unpleasant behavior in other people. If you have a job outside the home, you probably remember thinking, “what’s that person’s problem?” We get out of practice doing that when we are at home alone all the time.


Of course, if we have been traumatized through shaming, blaming, gas lighting, and other emotional abuse techniques, it is harder to separate oneself from others’ opinions.


Nonetheless, it can be very liberating to have clear boundaries in terms of what we think of ourselves. We don’t have to base our opinion of ourselves on what other people do or say, or even what we believe they are thinking about us.


sea turtle
Don't withdraw automatically

If you are engaging in crystal ball thinking or mind-reading, you can ask yourself these questions:

· What am I thinking about this other person’s opinion of me?

· Do I have any evidence that this person is actually thinking negatively about me?

· What other possible explanations could I have for my perception that this person is thinking ill of me?

· What is the likelihood that they know that I exist, other than another physical body in the same general physical space?

· How important is this person to my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being?

· What will happen if they don’t have a good opinion of me?


If you find yourself laughing after this exercise, that’s a very good thing. It means that you can enjoy the whimsical nature of your mind’s operations. Take delight in the fact that you can amuse yourself, and not take your thoughts as seriously as you did before.




Can you come out and play?


There are a number of factors that have interfered with our ability to socialize safely in the past year. It’s hard to figure out what to do with other people without risking infection, but outdoor activities might fit the bill, now that it’s not freezing outside.


We might be out of practice and feel tentative about socializing after going so long without social contact outside of our immediate family or roommates. We might also have some faulty thinking that interferes with socializing comfortably. Now that you’ve had a chance to think about some possible solutions to these impediments to socializing, I hope that you can come out and play!


Struggling with social fears and anxiety? I would love to help; please call 661-233-6771 if you live in California and we can talk about how we might work together.