You are not alone: More people than ever are feeling socially anxious

A year and a half ago, I was going to work every day in a big corporate office in downtown Detroit – interacting with others, making small talk and meeting new people. My weekends were chock full of family and friend parties – sometimes so busy I barely had a second to breathe. And then, like it did for everyone, it all just stopped in March 2020. 

While I’ve always had anxiety disorder, now I’m battling newfound social anxiety and paranoia – with a side of depersonalization disorder symptoms –  which have developed and increased over these last 17 or so months. 

If you’ve seen my Instagram, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Social anxiety? You’ve been going out every weekend lately. How are you socially anxious?” Well, that’s because on top of my social anxiety, my generalized anxiety disorder also makes me fearful of saying “no,” disappointing others, and gives me a bad case of FOMO (to my mom reading this, that stands for “fear of missing out”). So, yeah, my brain is pretty polarizing.

For me, my social anxiety materializes in a few ways:

  1.  I often have an anxiety attack before going out in public.
  2. I need to take a Xanax and/or drink a couple hard seltzers before I can attempt to act semi-normal around others – even in front of people I’ve known for 20+ years. 
  3.  I’m finding it harder to maintain eye contact without getting self-conscious. Because, in the back of mind, I’m thinking, “They’re judging me. I’m saying something dumb. They probably don’t want to actually hang out with me.” 
  4.  I’ve forgotten how to make small talk – and, oftentimes, because I’m me, I will say something inappropriate to fill the awkward silence. Sometimes I even dissociate while talking and then think, “Wait, I didn’t mean to say that.”
  5. And then, the next morning, I will obsessively rehash what I said the previous day and repeatedly ask my boyfriend, “Was I annoying yesterday? I feel like I was annoying.
On top of all that, after every social event, I’ll check my social media, thinking, “Someone probably deleted me. I’m an embarrassment and someone probably doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” (FYI: I probably shouldn’t have an app where I can tell who unfollowed me. Not the best thing for my mental health. But I digress).

So, yeah. This is just a snapshot of what my brain is like lately. 

Increased social anxiety is common

Now, we’ve come to the point of my blog where I do some research about the subject to make myself and others like me feel better by showing that you are not alone. 

Studies show that rates of social anxiety and agoraphobia (fear of situations that cause panic) have increased among the U.S. population during the COVID-19 pandemic because people avoided contact for so long. And it makes sense — we're out of practice. 

"You might have forgotten how to behave around people, feel anxious about how social patterns have shifted, or find that conversation that used to flow easily is now exhausting," Arlin Cuncic, author of "The Anxiety Workbook," wrote in an article on Very Well Mind

"People who were already experiencing some social anxiety may be pushed to the point of needing professional help, whereas in the past they may have skated by or lived with what they thought was a frustrating but tolerable condition."

Here are some tips on how to cope with your social anxiety:

Have you ever practiced a conversation in your head or in front of a mirror? If you're feeling anxious about a social situation, like a first date, prepare by thinking about what you can talk about and even Google some conversation starter ideas. Like people in accidents who have to re-learn how to walk, we also went through a traumatic event so it's okay if we need to re-learn how to have conversations.

Slow your breathing
Take time before a social event or walk away for a moment during the event (go to the bathroom, a separate room or outside for fresh air) if you're feeling anxious. Relax your shoulders, place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest, breathe in slowly through your nose for four seconds, hold breath for two seconds, slowly let it out for six seconds, and repeat until you feel relaxed. 

Start small
You don't have to jump into big social events (like I did). It's probably better to start small, like having a friend over for a movie night or going out for a one-on-one dinner. As an article on WebMD states, "Be patient with yourself. It takes time and practice to tackle social anxiety. You don’t have to face your biggest fears right away. If you take on too much too soon, you can actually cause more anxiety."

Think positively
When you're in the midst of feeling anxious, it's easy to think illogically. Instead, force yourself to consider the facts. WebMD gives this example: If you're thinking, “This situation makes me so anxious, I won’t be able to deal with it," challenge yourself to instead think, “I’ve felt anxious before but I’ve always gotten through it. I’ll do my best to focus on the positive parts of the experience.”

Remember: Most people can't tell
My problem is I feel like, when people are talking to me, I have this big flashing light over my head with the word "Awkward" over it. But, chances are, the people you are talking to can't tell. It's easy to be all-consumed with how you're feeling but, the thing is, everybody else is also too busy being all-consumed with how they're feeling to notice.

Be honest about it
Oftentimes, I will come right out in the middle of a conversation and say, "I'm sorry if I'm being awkward right now! I've felt socially anxious ever since COVID, and now I struggle with knowing what to say!" And every single time, they've responded, "Oh my god! Me too!" And that — that's helped more than anything.

Seek professional help
If your symptoms have gotten so bad that you can't handle them on your own, it's okay to seek outside help. Find a therapist who specializes in anxiety and/or offers cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy.

"Above all else ... it’s important to keep in mind that all of your emotions are valid right now. Whether you are feeling socially anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, or in despair, you are not alone and many others feel the same way," writes Cuncic.

"In the past many people with social anxiety were brushed off as having a problem that was 'not real.' Increasingly, the world is going to recognize that the reality of those living with social anxiety is anything but made-up."

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