Processing social anxiety as the UK reopens post-pandemic

The course of the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly caused stress and anxiety for millions of people, but as restrictions ease, a new wave of social anxiety is preventing some from returning to normal life.

Good mental wellbeing is essential to recover from the emotional trauma of the coronavirus pandemic. With restrictions reducing, organisations like Anxiety UK are experiencing increasing demand for support around social anxiety.

A recent survey by the organisation shows a split in views as restrictions ease. When asked about their feelings around the world opening up again, 37 per cent of over 900 respondents said they are looking forward to returning to normal life.

However, 36 per cent said they were happy to stay at home, with almost half of those respondents citing the pressures of socialising as their biggest concern.

ON THE RISE

This fear is a relatable reminder of the impact restrictions have had on overall mental wellbeing since March 2020.

Anyone can experience anxiety, often manifesting in symptoms like a sense of dread, a faster heartbeat or feeling lightheaded. When these feelings start to interrupt your day-to-day life, it can be considered a mental health problem.

“If you notice changes to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours that last longer than two weeks, keep returning, and are affecting your daily life – such as work and relationships – speak to someone you trust,” advises Rosie Weatherley, information content manager at mental health charity, Mind.

It could be the first time you have experienced anxiety around social situations, or it may be something you have felt in the past, and as the possibility of being in crowded public spaces rises, it is normal for these feelings to increase, too.

“This is the post-lockdown anxiety people have been talking about,” explains Dave Smithson, operations director at Anxiety UK.

“It will take time to readjust back into the routine we used to take so much for normal.”

James can’t remember a year when he didn’t experience some form of anxiety, but over the last five years his feelings of social anxiety have increased. Just as the pandemic began, James, a videographer, was able to work remotely rather than in an office to aid his social anxiety, but the coronavirus meant this was extended.

“Doing a so-called normal job would be very difficult, even though my job did allow me to work from home it still involved a lot of meetings which the pandemic kind of saved me from,” reveals James.

Gaining the position through a traineeship for people who have disabilities or social anxiety, James’ workplace understood his needs, but as restrictions ease he worries about the pressure to return to normal working life.

“That’s my big worry, there is a point where I’ve got to do my job and I can’t put things off or use the pandemic as an excuse, I’m not going to be able to keep on doing that,” expresses James.

SHIELDING

James’ concerns around restrictions easing and the pressure to return to normal life aren’t isolated.

“Some people with mental health problems, especially those who have been shielding during the coronavirus pandemic, may be feeling lots of different emotions about lockdown easing,” empathises Rosie.

“This might include anxiety around health, crowds and socialising, and changes to their daily routine.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing social anxiety, it is important to remember that it is a natural response to the current situation.

“We’ve been told for 12 to 14 months to stay at home, to stay two metres from people, to wash our hands every time you touch something, and now it’s like well it’s OK to go out and hug people – that’s a confusing change of messaging and it creates some anxiety,” emphasises Dave who had to shield himself.

“If you’ve had a letter saying that you were advised to shield, you have hopefully followed that guidance and protected yourself, taking lots of precautions to minimise risk and eliminate any danger where possible.

“The element of risk is still there, that underlying health condition will not, and in many cases will never, go away and you’ll be thinking how safe is it really.”

RESPONSE

When these feelings arise, there are organisations, charities and individuals around you ready to offer a helping hand.

“Try to take things at your own pace, and give yourself time to adjust,” suggests Rosie. “It might help to talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, such as a friend, family member or health professional. Having someone listen and show they care can help in itself.”

Even if you are no longer required to shield, or you are now fully vaccinated, feelings of social anxiety are valid in constantly changing and scary circumstances.

“If it’s feeling overwhelming just take it one step at a time, meet one friend at a time and see how you feel; just build up your natural resilience,” suggests Dave. “Operate around different solutions that work for you and that you feel comfortable with.”

The Anxiety UK website offers resources like phrases to explain how you’re feeling and how people can help support you until you feel more comfortable.

James feels there is now a greater understanding around anxiety, and specifically social anxiety, because of the pandemic, but there is still a way to go in empathy and support around mental health.

“I think we’re all going through some level of anxiety so it does seem that across the whole there is more understanding,” acknowledges James.

“If a person was to try and cancel or postpone something maybe even a couple times, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to meet with you it’s just that they maybe need a bit more time to build up to it.”

As rules become more lenient, it is normal to feel worried and anxious.

Being mindful of others and taking time to explain how you feel can be the first step to resuming, and enjoying, daily life.

Resources and support to help with social anxiety visit, Mind or Anxiety UK.