With the pandemic hitting the whole globe and lockdowns being enforced, social isolation has become a real problem for many people.
The number of social encounters we experience has dropped significantly throughout the last year and those who work from home and live alone may spend most of their days by themselves.
While some people who had been suffering from social anxiety before the pandemic have welcomed the new norms regarding social distancing, others are experiencing an increase in their symptoms. A recent study reported that people suffering from social anxiety are more likely to experience Covid-related worry and impairment (Buckner, Abarno, Lewis, Zvolensky, & Garey, 2021).
What is more, many people who enjoyed socializing and felt comfortable around others before the coronavirus outbreak are now starting to feel awkward and insecure when meeting others.
Why Is Social Anxiety So Common Now?
Social isolation highly correlates with feelings of loneliness, and loneliness is linked to several mental health issues (Wang, Lloyd-Evans, & Giacco, 2017).
After all, we are social animals, as we evolved to live in groups. We are hardwired to cooperate and communicate with each other, to feel compassion and empathy for other humans, and to seek affiliation with other members of our species.
Given that we evolved living in groups and being around others, our brains and bodies need these stimuli to function properly. For instance, a simple handshake or touch on the shoulder releases the neuropeptide oxytocin, which increases social interest and improves social functioning.
If we live in a socially deprived environment, our body does not receive the social input it needs to operate normally. Among the effects of this deprivation can be mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Another reason social anxiety has become more common throughout the last year is a decrease in social skills. Social isolation inevitably robs us of the chance to actively practice our social abilities.
When we live a socially active life, this process happens automatically. We feel like meeting other people, we hang out and chat with them, and simply share a good time.
However, social isolation changes things a bit. We are not used to meeting other people on a daily basis anymore. We do not get to practice our social skills that often. We do not take it for granted to be around others.
So, when we finally meet other people, things can become a bit weird and awkward. We may be more aware and conscious of the social encounter, as it is not part of our daily routine anymore. We may think twice before saying something or ruminate about a comment we made. We may have more difficulties connecting to others and reading facial expressions as well as emotions can be more difficult than it used to be.
How to Counteract These Effects?
The answer is quite simple: if you can, meet up with other people more frequently while staying responsible.
Of course, we are in the midst of a pandemic and we are not advocating irresponsible socializing. What we do recommend is to find ways to socialize with others while adhering to the recommendations of public health policies.
Throughout the last year, the public focus has been shifting away from a physical-health-only standpoint to a position which also considers our mental health.
Here are some ideas for how to incorporate safe social encounters to your daily routine during times of covid-19:
- Meet up with one or two people at a time. Avoid larger groups.
- Wear a mask when meeting people.
- Choose outdoor activities.
- Engage in conversation with people you see everyday (e.g., a receptionist, a doorman, co-workers, etc.)
- Social anxiety can increase as a result of social isolation, because we do not receive the social input our bodies need to function properly.
- With less frequent social encounters, our social skills can suffer.
- When meeting other people only occasionally, we may experience more self-consciousness, which is associated with social anxiety.
- The covid-19 pandemic does not only pose a risk on our physical, but also our mental health and we should take care of it in a responsible way.
Buckner, J. D., Abarno, C. N., Lewis, E. M., Zvolensky, M. J., & Garey, L. (2021). Increases in distress during stay-at-home mandates During the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal study. Psychiatry research, 298, 113821. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113821
Wang J., Lloyd-Evans B., Giacco D. Social isolation in mental health: a conceptual and methodological review. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52:1451–1461.