Managing Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety
Not Yet Ready to Party Like It's 2019? Cedars-Sinai Psychiatry Chair Discusses Coping Mechanisms for a Smooth Transition to Normalcy
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago, staying home and limiting social interaction became key tools in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Now, as more people get vaccinated, infection rates slow and restrictions loosen across the country, many are experiencing the joy of finally reconnecting with family and friends. Yet, at the same time, many also are experiencing feelings that they didn't expect–like anxiety about returning to social situations.
Itai Danovitch, MD, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai, said that it's normal to struggle with change, even when it's positive.
"For some people, these changes are exciting and for other people, they're daunting," said Danovitch.
Danovitch said that after so many months away, returning to the workplace or attending a family barbecue can cause many to feel worried, anxious or even panicked.
"Fear or anxiety is normal," he said. "We feel things for a reason, and anxiety is basically a threat response."
The threat level that people perceive about returning to social situations after the pandemic will vary from person to person, Danovitch said, and an individual's perception may even change from day to day.
To work through these feelings, Danovitch suggests that people take the time before a social event to think through exactly what parts of the upcoming interaction make them anxious, then strategize about what they can do to mitigate their concerns.
"Think about what factors are within your control," he said. "For example, if you have concerns about an upcoming event or a gathering, talk to the host about those concerns early. Get the information you need to make a decision about your comfort level, and don’t be afraid to communicate that decision."
Danovitch said this may mean having to limit the time spent at a social gathering or even declining an invitation.
"We need to have honest conversations with each other," he said. "It takes a certain amount of bravery and courage to do that, to be honest about how you feel, because there's risk of being misunderstood."
But Danovitch said that it's important to understand that these anxious feelings aren't always the sign of a bigger problem.
"Not all anxiety or fear is an anxiety disorder," he said. "Many will feel a certain amount of trepidation or shyness at first, but will soon adjust to and enjoy more socializing."
According to Danovitch, anxiety and fear do cross the line when they cause dysfunction, impairment, or severe distress.
"For example, if you're so anxious about returning to work, which is a social setting, that you're not coming into work at all," he said, "if you are having recurrent panic attacks, or if your anxiety is persistent, pervasive and affecting your function, then it makes good sense to seek professional help. Anxiety disorders are very common, and there are a number of effective treatments available to address them."
For those who struggle with social anxiety to the point where it impedes their lives, Danovitch recommends talking to a primary care provider about care and treatment options.
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Coping With Back-To-School Anxiety During COVID-19