By Susan M. Doak, LPC
With the increase in COVID vaccination rates and decrease in case numbers, the pandemic appears to be improving and there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. By no means are we “out of the woods,” however, and precautions to slow the spread of the virus are still as important as they always have been. That being said, there is hope rising that perhaps we will be able to resume many of our normal activities this summer.
As exciting as this sounds, this news also brings anxiety for many who have been socially isolated during the pandemic. There was something comfortable about staying home and curling up with our pets and a good internet connection. For more introverted people, the pandemic may have been a welcome break from the extroverted social pressures of normal life.
If you are feeling nervous about re-engaging with the world after the pandemic, please know that you are in good company. Even social butterfly-types are reporting that they feel awkward making small talk due to being out of practice. They also feel anxiety in anticipation of social situations. Not to mention, wearing “nice clothes” has never been more uncomfortable. Dress pants are torture devices, we can all agree. At the same time, the weather is warming up and a backyard BBQ with friends has never sounded so amazing. No dress pants necessary!
I have a few tips and mindset changes to help you get ready for re-entry into the social sphere:
1. Work your way up to bigger activities: If you feel anxiety, work your way up to bigger activities by doing small ones first. For example, if you are not ready to eat out in a restaurant, or feel it’s not safe yet, prime yourself by walking in public areas and then try sitting outdoors at a restaurant for an appetizer. Observe the scene, take in the presence of strangers, and enjoy it.
2. Make some plans: Look at your calendar and make plans by writing them down. Even small, seemingly insignificant plans are going to help you to orient toward the future. Having something to look forward to will boost your mood and give you some extra energy to make it through long days. Your plans can include anything from going to the public library for new books to planning a trip to Hawaii—and everything in-between!
3. Leave your house often: If you work from home and have had no social plans, it’s likely that you’ve been spending a lot of time staring at a screen at home. Make it a habit to leave your house every day. Pick up a coffee or groceries, go for a drive in the country, or take your kids to the playground. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. For an extra mood boost, spend some time in the sunshine and do something active such as hiking, gardening, or biking.
4. Re-connect with old friends: We have all lost touch with friends in the last year. There are only so many Zoom conversations that someone can have in a week and some friendships are best in-person. Invite friends to a backyard fire or meet up at a park. Do a gardening exchange or meet up for a picnic. It may feel awkward to make the first move, but your old friends will appreciate it. And if they are not ready to get out there yet, that’s okay! Maybe next time. Keep the lines of communication open and don’t take it personally.
5. The bar is low: Everyone feels awkward. Kids, teens, adults. It’s like all of us are suddenly going to middle school again. We are worried about how to dress, what to say, and who is watching. No one is crushing it right now. Remember to give yourself and others some extra grace and keep practicing.
6. Prepare for small talk: What can you say if someone asks the dreaded “What have you been up to?” Be honest! You’ll find that many people are in the same boat. You don’t need to impress people with an active social calendar or recent accomplishments, even if you are very proud that you cleaned out your closet. If you’ve been literally just working, sleeping, parenting and doing dishes, then say that. Then add some info about what you are hoping to do this summer or a story about something funny that happened to you. You’ll be good as gold. I can also recommend falling back on my personal favorite conversational trick in social situations—be the person asking the questions. Here are some questions I use: “What have your days looked like recently?” “How is your family doing?” “Have you seen any good TV shows lately?” “Now that the weather is warming up, do you have any plans to enjoy it?”
What a year! Yes, it’s been an entire year that we’ve been managing the demands of the pandemic. This year of isolation has been a serious challenge. Even if it makes you nervous, you can start to make some small changes to re-engage with the world of humans. I think it could be just the boost that you need. Go for it.