Covid: How to deal with social anxiety as restrictions ease

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Many are excited about lockdown easing, but for some its causing anxiety

You can now sit in the pub, do a group exercise class and hug loved ones. But the easing of coronavirus rules in England, Scotland and Wales isn't exciting for everyone - for those with social anxiety, life after lockdown can be a scary prospect.

Social anxiety disorder is a fear of social situations and includes worrying about meeting strangers, how to act with groups of friends and generally feeling self-conscious.

It can make everyday life extremely difficult and can manifest physically by causing sweating, palpitations or panic attacks.

"My social life has been completely depleted, I've not seen any of my friends and a lot of my friendships have been ruined by lockdown because they relied on social contact and proximity," Maria Badmus tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

She's a 21-year-old midwife from east London and after graduating during the pandemic, says she has had to put her job first.

"I'm always busy working so I haven't had time to text and I'm not someone who will break the rules to go to people's houses because of my work, so I've been extremely socially absent for the past two lockdowns."

Image source, Maria Badmus
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Maria is a midwife and has spent most of the pandemic working

As someone with social anxiety, she says before the pandemic she was generally anxious and found group settings difficult.

"I was always uncomfortable and awkward and I feel like it's going to be even worse - I know a lot of people are saying after lockdown they're going to be really ready to socialise because they've not had the opportunity in a while, I don't think that will be the case for me," she says.

'I'm going to have to push myself'

Someone who's also worried about the anxiety of being in group settings again is Oli Aworth, a 24-year-old student from Surrey.

"Nightclubs have always been a big issue for me - I'm much more looking forward to seeing friends in quieter places like pubs and bars," he says.

"Anywhere crowded or too loud does tend to put me off and can present a challenge to my anxiety, but I know that if I want to see my friends I am going to have to push myself a bit once lockdown is over."

Oli thinks that coming out of lockdown will be hard for people with social anxiety as they've got used to their life being a certain way.

"I'd say the roadmap out of lockdown has made social anxiety sufferers like myself more anxious.

"I've become so accustomed to being in my comfort zone and being more alone and independent, which means my anxiety has remained unchallenged most of the time."

Image source, Oli Aworth
Image caption,
Oli is worried about going back to busy social spaces like nightclubs

He says because he's been unable to confront his anxiety head on - by going out and socialising - he's worried about how he will cope.

"The announcement [about lockdown ending] piled on quite a lot of pressure, especially for me being in the LGBT community," he says.

He thinks there's a pressure within the community to come out of the pandemic looking physically good.

"It brings up issues of 'do I look good enough?' or 'will my friends want to see me?' and whether I've achieved enough during lockdown."

'Focus on the present'

Charley Gavigan is a psychotherapist who specialises in anxiety disorders and says a lot of people have been coming to her for advice on how to cope with lockdown easing.

"I think a lot of people have looked on social media and made an assumption that most people are thriving - that comparison stuff is really deafening," she says.

Charley says a lot of people with social anxiety rely on having topics of conversation ready for group situations, so the pandemic has presented a new problem as life has become quite dull and repetitive.

"What do you talk about, because what have we been doing? We've run out of box sets so there's this weird disconnect."

She has a few tips for people who are starting to panic about life returning to normal.

"Focus on the present," she says.

"Worrying isn't actually solving any problems - the approach that I work with people is 'what can you do to feel more at ease', and a lot of that is rooted in dropping being perfect.

"Many people in social situations hold themselves to these standards of being exceptional and the life and the soul of the party - maybe it's just about being good enough and seeing how they can relax themselves."

Charley says it's about recognising patterns of behaviour that lead to negative thoughts and trying to stop them happening in a constant cycle.

"It takes a lot of energy to actually interact with people when we are constantly thinking about what other people's perception of us is," she says.

Her advice for preparing for normal life again is to redirect your energy - instead of stressing about all the outcomes of a social situation, "think what you can do to feel more at ease".

"Turn the spotlight [in your mind] off you and on to others in social anxiety-provoking situations."

She says you should also stop yourself from thinking back to previous social situations you've found uncomfortable and concentrate on what's in front of you.

"Focus your energy on being interested in the other person, showing empathy and kindness towards them rather than being stuck inside your own anxious mind.

"People who we want in our lives will accept us if we accept us ourselves."

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