People living with social anxiety have an intense and persistent fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection from others. It can lead them to avoid social situations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, public officials have urged people to distance themselves physically from people outside of their household.
Physical distancing may provide relief for people with social anxiety, but a lack of interaction can also maintain social anxiety.
In this article, we look at the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic may have on people with social anxiety. We also discuss how to cope with social anxiety while sheltering in place.
People living with social anxiety often avoid interactions with other people to avoid feeling afraid. Physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may make it easier for people to avoid socializing, which may provide short-term relief.
However, avoiding social interaction can also maintain social anxiety. One of the most common treatments for social anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — involves gradual exposure to social situations.
This exposure allows people with social anxiety to challenge the thoughts and beliefs that may cause some of their fears. Without the opportunity to do this, it may be more challenging for people to make progress.
Additionally, spending time alone may mean that people who avoid social interaction find it difficult to adjust when it is time to resume normal activities.
A pandemic also creates new sources of stress that can affect anyone. These may include:
- worries about health and safety
- concern about accessing food and supplies
- financial strain
- feelings of isolation or loneliness
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people living with social anxiety experience intense fear and anxiety in relation to at least one social situation where others might judge them.
- speaking very quietly
- providing minimal detail in response to questions
- avoiding making eye contact
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people with social anxiety may also notice that they feel anxious about making phone or video calls.
Most people living with social anxiety will report symptoms before they are 20 years old. Some people notice symptoms during early childhood. However, many people do not realize that they have a treatable condition.
Therapists use CBT to treat social anxiety by asking their clients to identify and challenge negative beliefs about socializing. Often, this involves carrying out behavior experiments in which a person tests how they cope with situations that they find difficult.
Over time, this can prove that the situations that a person fears are not threatening and improve how they feel about them. However, while people shelter in place, it may be more difficult for them to begin or continue this type of therapy.
Isolation can also have a negative effect on mental health, so it is important to stay connected. Virtual communication can help people stay in touch with family and friends, and it gives them the chance to talk about how they feel.
Some people also rely on pets for emotional support. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people who get COVID-19 limit their contact with both pets and other humans.
Physical distancing requires people to stand at least 6 feet (about 2 meters) apart. However, people can still converse and interact at a distance.
During a pandemic, experts encourage people to continue socializing to counter feelings of isolation. Different methods of socializing include:
- connecting by telephone or text
- connecting on social media
- mailing letters or cards
- sending emails
Many people use exercise to help manage their anxiety. Although many gyms and fitness facilities are closed, some are offering online services through various social media and video platforms.
People can take additional steps to prioritize their mental health during the pandemic. These include:
Limit watching or reading the news
Although people need to know how the pandemic is progressing, too much exposure to the news can promote sadness, fear, and stress. The American Psychological Association suggest restricting news watching and reading to a reasonable limit and getting updates only from reputable sources of information.
Follow a routine every day
People’s routines have changed because of physical distancing. A daily routine may help adults and children preserve a sense of purpose as they shelter in place, particularly if they can no longer go to work or school.
Maintain a healthful lifestyle
Getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, and exercising daily can help people cope with anxiety. People who find that they are relying on alcohol or drugs to help them cope with isolation should speak to a doctor or therapist.
Keep taking prescribed medication
Although people with social anxiety may feel better while they shelter in place, they should not stop taking their medication unless their doctor instructs them to do so.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Psychiatrists often prescribe CBT for people living with social anxiety. Although doctors’ offices may be closed, some CBT therapists offer services online. Internet-based CBT can be an effective strategy when in-person therapy is not possible.
Other psychological strategies
Psychologists recommend keeping a daily gratitude journal. Gratitude can help people focus on the good that staying indoors could do for others, rather than on the drawbacks.
People can also try using mindfulness and relaxation applications on their handheld devices, which can make it easier to cope with stress.
During a pandemic, it is normal to feel anxious. However, anyone experiencing extreme stress, trouble sleeping, difficulty with daily tasks, or an increase in alcohol or drug use should consult a doctor.
People with preexisting mental health conditions, such as social anxiety, may be more susceptible to stress during a pandemic. Stress could lead some people to relapse, stop taking medications, or engage in suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Many people will feel anxious during a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, people living with social anxiety may feel temporary relief from their symptoms while they stay at home.
When physical distancing is no longer necessary, people with social anxiety may struggle to adapt to their normal activities after being isolated. Self-care, CBT, and staying connected virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic may make the transition less difficult.