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  • Janine Miller

Social anxiety during Covid19 – Why is going back out into the world so hard?

2020 has been a very unusual year…

with large scale government policies to keep people at home and away from each other in order to protect individuals and communities.

The restrictions imposed on our day-to-day living have been emotionally challenging because life, as we knew it, suddenly changed in a very short space of time.

As restrictions have been lifted, we have gradually and cautiously re-entered the workplace, educational settings, entertainment venues, restaurants and shops.

As we re-emerge out into the world and begin to do more of the activities that we used to engage in a year ago, some of us can find this particularly anxiety-provoking.

On the one hand, there can be fear around becoming ill from the virus or unknowingly spreading it to others.

And, on the other hand, there can be anxiety that existed before Covid-19 existed.

People who struggle with anxiety generally may well have found it a relief to be limited in their day-to-day activities.

What a relief to not have to leave the house much, to not have to interact with others much, to not imagine that we are being judged by strangers, to not find ourselves in situations that are potentially embarrassing or where help might not be readily available! These daily events (actual or perceived) can feel immensely challenging for individuals with anxiety.

For many people, the pandemic has increased anxiety and fear. But many people who struggle with anxiety may actually have been feeling less anxious in 2020. What a relief to be able to stay home, have fewer worries and concerns and feel far more relaxed!

If we can stay in an environment that is reliable and predictable – we feel safest here. Home is usually the place where we have familiarity and our comforts are within reach. At home, we feel like we have much more control over what happens and when it happens. Our real-life social interactions are limited to the people in our immediate vicinity who we know and who know us.

So going back out into the world can feel incredibly challenging as it means there is a high chance that we find ourselves out in spaces where there is unpredictability, and we feel particularly vulnerable as a result.

Staying home more because of coronavirus restrictions and guidelines will have been a very welcome relief for people who feel vulnerable every time they step out of their homes.

So what can we do to make going out easier?

It’s really important to be able to find strategies that help you navigate your way out in the world because, unfortunately, staying home all the time is not a realistic option. Being one of many social creatures living within communities means that we get stuff done by being out and about.

The best way to be able to work out strategies for coping with anxiety is to learn to manage our emotions. And a really useful tool in managing our emotions – and reducing the impact of our most difficult emotions – is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about the attitudes we embody as we interact in the world, which enable us to notice our emotions and then pause to spend time on settling those emotions instead of getting caught up in them. The more we are able to do this, the better we feel in ourselves emotionally and physically.

Through practising mindfulness, we become more open to acknowledging our difficult emotions and, because of this, we are able to actively choose what to do with them, instead of reacting automatically. Doing this then influences how we feel.

For example, if we know it’s a struggle to get to work in the mornings, mindfulness means noticing what thoughts, feelings and physical sensations we are experiencing. Just this small step of pausing and paying attention to our internal experience can make it easier to navigate the external stimuli around us as we get ourselves from home to the workplace. It’s almost as if we have someone holding our hands on the way to work because we are more able to support ourselves through the experience.

Choosing mindfully to pay attention to our anxiety

Often we are overwhelmed by the sheer weight of our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Some people describe this as “a storm cloud over my head” or “a giant bowling ball that knocks me over” or “a big messy unmanageable jumble” or “getting lost in a thick fog”.

However your anxiety feels to you, it is most helpful to pause and ask yourself “why is going back out into the world so hard?” and begin to separate out thoughts from feelings and physical sensations so that it feels less overwhelming. Once you begin to separate out these elements of your experience, it becomes easier to find ways to deal with each of them.

Going out into the world may feel challenging but there are ways to support ourselves through these difficulties. Choosing, mindfully, to pay attention to our internal world gives us an opportunity to improve our emotional wellbeing.

First published at 27 October 2020.

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