COVID Anxiety Syndrome: 5 Tips for Getting Back Out There After Social Distancing

ViewApart/iStock via Getty Images
ViewApart/iStock via Getty Images / ViewApart/iStock via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its COVID-19 guidelines, saying it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to socialize indoors in small groups without masks. The three COVID-19 vaccines approved by the FDA offer excellent protection against the virus, but they won’t replenish any social skills you’ve lost over the past year. While some people are eager to get back to the office or reunite with friends over cocktails, others have understandable anxieties about reentering the world. Whether you're suffering from "COVID anxiety syndrome" or plain social awkwardness, here are some tips for getting back out there.

1. Communicate Your Comfort Levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our social norms. People have varying comfort levels in different social situations, and you don’t know what those levels are until you ask. To avoid unnecessary anxiety, figure out what your friends are comfortable with while making plans to hang out. That way, you won’t have to deal with the awkwardness of going in for a hug when your friend offers an elbow bump (or vice-versa).

2. Prioritize the People You’re Close To.

Don’t feel pressured to reconnect with every friend, acquaintance, and coworker within a month of becoming fully vaccinated. Your social muscles are likely out of shape, and seeing everyone in your old network right away may be overwhelming. Dr. Debra O'Shea, a neuropsychologist who specializes in social anxiety, tells USA Today that people should prioritize getting together with the friends they’re most comfortable around first. After warming up with them, you should be better prepared to make conversation with the people you don't know as well.

3. Start Small.

For people who have developed new or exacerbated social anxiety since the start of the pandemic, even the thought of a dinner date with a close friend may be too much. Give yourself permission to take it slow as you start to do more. “Increase your social interactions one small step at a time and you’ll likely discover it gets a little easier with each step,” writes psychotherapist Amy Morin, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.

If you aren’t ready for a full-blown social engagement, try going to a store or a coffee shop alone to acclimate yourself with being in public. When you’re ready to see friends, start with one-on-one meetings before moving on to group hangouts.

4. You’re Still Allowed to Say "No."

After more than a year of social distancing, you may feel pressure to make up for lost time. But part of getting back into your old habits means being just as comfortable declining invitations as you are accepting them. It’s normal to need time to recharge your social batteries—especially if you’re out of practice. Don’t be afraid to say "no" when you feel burnt out, or better yet, block out alone time in your schedule to stop yourself from saying "yes" to too much too soon.

5. Know You’re Not Alone.

If you feel too awkward to exist in the world right now, the good news is that you’re not alone. The friends and acquaintances you reconnect with at the bar or over the water cooler are also learning how to interact with people in 2021. "Be honest about it," Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, tells NPR. "Sometimes when you name something, it takes away its power.” Acknowledging the awkwardness of a situation can ease the tension. The person on the other end of the conversation will likely be grateful you did.