It’s Not Just You: The Pandemic Has Made Social Anxiety So Much Worse
Social distancing mimics avoidance, which ‘feeds and waters’ social anxiety
Early in the pandemic, I found myself sweating as I prepared for a Zoom happy hour (remember those?) with my college roommates. I’d lived with these women. Our husbands knew each other. Yet somehow my nerves still felt jangly. Then there was a distanced-and-masked walk with a friend one afternoon: I spent the drive home worrying that a joke I’d made had come out wrong. Deep down I knew everything was fine, but I couldn’t stop replaying my words, trying to remember what my friend’s facial expression had been like afterward.
It’s clear that my social anxiety, which I was previously managing effectively, has become decidedly more pronounced during the pandemic. It’s as if my socializing muscles have atrophied during the year at home, making way for anxiety to dominate.
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, says I’m not alone. “By being housebound during the pandemic, we’ve been acting like we have severe social anxiety,” she says. “It’s for a good reason, of course, but it mimics avoidance, which feeds and waters social anxiety.”
To make matters worse, when we do venture out, we’re met with high-stakes stressors: things like the possibility of getting sick, differing approaches to pandemic safety, and masked communication mishaps.
Combine these factors and it would actually be more surprising if you weren’t facing some degree of anxiety right now. But social anxiety, specifically, is its own unique animal.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety, Hendriksen explains, stems from a fear that you have a “fatal flaw” that will be revealed, prompting humiliation. It could relate to your personality, social skills, or appearance, and it comes with an urge to avoid situations where this flaw may be exposed.
If you’re not sure if you have social anxiety, Chris MacLeod, MSW, and creator of SucceedSocially.com, says common symptoms include:
- A strong urge to opt out of events.