As COVID-19 cases drop down to manageable numbers and vaccinated people take off their masks, you might have mixed feelings about re-entering society.
Rest assured, you're not alone. No matter how easy your neighbor or friend might be making it look on social media, getting back out there socially post-pandemic can be stressful. Here's how to navigate some of your anxieties and fears.
Dr. Elizabeth Nikol, Summit Health's Manager of Integrated Behavioral Health, says that many of her patients and friends have brought up the issue of socializing and the anxieties that go along with it.
To reduce fears, she says, it's simply a matter of practice. "We've been pulled out of casual conversations and small talk and being able to meet up with friends or at parties," she explains. "We have a recollection of this and know how to do it, but it may be uncomfortable, and we may fail at first. Very few of us are going to be amazing communicators right away."
She likes to use the example of working out and going to the gym. If you haven't been doing it regularly, you can't expect to jump on the treadmill for an hour or take a 45-minute spin class. The body needs conditioning for that kind of thing.
It's the same way with your social muscles. Be patient with yourself, she advises, and work your way back up to a level of going out. "Some level of social anxiety is going to be natural and common."
Dr. Nikol suggests beginning with visiting trusted friends or family members whom you've only seen via Zoom. "Each person has to come up with their own comfort level," she says. "Are you going to do outdoor dining or only inside? Go to someone's house and use the bathroom? What you feel you need to do for your own safety is different than what someone else feels."
To avoid the discomfort of not knowing how to greet people—mask on or off, elbow or fist bump, hug, or kiss—decide for yourself beforehand what you're comfortable with. Then be honest and send a text or email before you meet with someone, stating your preferences about exchanging a hug or handshake and/or asking about their own. "Communicate what you need in advance so there's no awkwardness," Dr. Nikol says. "It's okay to say, 'I have an ill parent at home.'" That way, you can avoid the hesitant step toward or away.
In addition, Dr. Nikol reminds her patients that peer pressure shouldn't force you into an embrace. The pandemic has allowed everyone to reconsider what's truly important, and whose opinion matters to them. "Advocate for yourself," she says. And conversely, be aware of what the other person is comfortable with.
Of course, self-advocacy will change with guidelines and vaccination status. As of now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced that fully vaccinated Americans can take off their masks outdoors safely and indoors when in the company of other fully vaccinated individuals. This means that, as of now, you can dine inside a restaurant, go to theaters and museums that are beginning to re-open, and enjoy other sources of entertainment.
But you should still mask up in crowded places—airports, concerts, shopping malls—where you're unsure of everyone's status. And if you're immunocompromised or have a close family member who may not have a full immune response to the vaccine due to an underlying medical condition or who is ineligible for vaccination, you should also exercise precautions.
In any event, Dr. Nikol says, the most important thing to do is to neither ignore nor give in to feelings of social anxiety. "If we choose to avoid it, it will be a never-ending cycle." Instead, she recommends starting like you would going back to the gym after a long time away. "Start slow, then gradually increase it each week so that you're constantly working on that atrophied social muscle.” Soon enough, you'll be enjoying anxiety-free activities surrounded by friends (old and new).