As COVID restrictions are lifted and Americans get vaccinated, weddings and events are back in full swing. But for some guests who have spent over a year in isolation virtually avoiding others, attending any social gathering can be challenging.
It may feel scary for your physical health to be in close proximity to others. Or you might be nervous about making small talk with strangers after not practicing that skill for so long. You may simply be wondering how you are going to get the energy to put on a black-tie dress and heels after a year of wearing nothing but sweats and slippers.
To help we spoke to clinical psychologist Lisa Morse. She's been helping her own clients, both individuals and couples, navigate the tricky act of re-entering social situations. She talked us through what to do if you're nervous before attending a party to how to calm yourself down if you are in the middle of the action and feeling panicky.
Meet the Expert
Lisa Morse, Ph.D. is a NY state licensed Clinical Psychologist. She has been treating individuals and couples for over 15 years.
Should You Force Yourself to Socialize?
"Absolutely!" exclaims Morse. "Avoiding what we fear is a definite way to strengthen the fear and ensure that it persists. The best way to handle social anxiety is to address it head-on." She adds that avoiding social situations can even make things worse. "Even more important is knowing that avoiding discomfort will only exacerbate it, whereas pushing through will help alleviate it."
The more you socialize, the more confident you will feel, and the more strategies you will develop to use when you are feeling less comfortable. In this situation, practice really does make perfect.
What to Do Before Going to an Event
The first thing to do is remind yourself that you are not alone and this is a tricky situation for everybody. After all, very few humans have had to manage the emotional stress of a pandemic before now. "I would tell them that their nerves are completely normal and that this is a time of adjustment," says Morse. "Accepting the feelings, rather than fighting them and feeling bad about having them, is key to managing anxiety."
If you're nervous about your physical safety, check-in on CDC guidelines to remind yourself how to keep yourself safe at the gathering. For example, if you are not vaccinated, you should still be wearing a mask when in a group. If you are, it is still a good idea to adhere to social distancing if the party allows it.
If you're feeling overwhelmed about being in a large crowd, Morse suggests practicing by hanging out in smaller group settings first. See a few friends at one time or attend a small dinner party. "Little by little you will adjust and build up tolerance," she shares. "You don't have to jump into the biggest parties right away."
There are also lifestyle changes you can make that will lower your anxiety. "Incorporate daily stress reduction techniques like regular exercise and meditation," adds Morse. "The lower your baseline of anxiety is, the better you'll be able to handle increased social stress as it arises."
What to Do During an Event
We've all been there, even before the pandemic. You're at a party, and you start feeling nervous. Thoughts run through your head: Who should I talk to? Do I look OK? What if I have nothing to say at dinner? Don't worry! This is all a normal part of social anxiety. There are techniques you can use to calm yourself down in the moment and then jump back into the fun.
If you've been upset or stressed, you've probably had someone tell you to take a deep breath. That is because deep breathing really does help with anxiety. When you take a deep breath, you increase the supply of oxygen to your brain. This signals the nervous system to calm down, which helps you feel more relaxed and less panicky. If you're feeling nervous, go to the bathroom and take a few deep breaths.
Prepare a Few Self-Statements
The worst thing you can do is judge yourself for feeling anxious; then you will feel insecure on top of your anxiety! Morse suggests preparing a few statements to pick yourself up if you find yourself stressed. She suggests the following lines: "Just because I'm nervous doesn't mean anything bad is happening," or, "I know I'm uncomfortable, but I'm not in danger."
Tell Someone How You Feel
Morse said it's helpful to share your feelings rather than keep them bottled up inside. "Likely others are feeling versions of the same," she says. "If not, most people can understand the discomfort associated with venturing outside of our protected COVID bubbles."
Remember, this is an unprecedented situation that has touched everyone; even if another person seems fine, it doesn't mean he or she hasn't felt some form of social anxiety as well.
If you have a close friend at the party, consider confiding in them. If you don't know anyone, text a friend or a family member. Also, don't be afraid to open up to new people you just met. After the year we've had, COVID is still on everyone's mind. Opening up to someone and getting real right away might even help you make a new friend.
When to Seek Professional Help
Say you've tried everything. You've exercised and eaten healthy before a party. At an event, you've taken deep breaths and confided in a friend about how you're feeling. You even went to the bathroom to look in the mirror and tell yourself you're fine. If none of these things work, it might be time to get professional help.
"Feeling anxiety alone is not enough of a reason to get therapy. Again, that's perfectly normal after the past year," offers Morse. "But when it interferes with functioning and you're unable to push through, help is definitely needed." There is a chance your anxiety is stemming from something else, and a professional can help you get it under control so you can enjoy socializing once again.