Anxiety and Depression

Social Anxiety and The New Normal

BY DIYANAH WAHAB

21 July 2020  |   7 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic can be a challenging time for people with social anxiety. Changes in social interactions and social norms can increase the uncertainties and concerns people have about social situations. According to a poll of 314 people by My Mental Health, 30% of the respondents were concerned about social interactions in the new normal (15% of them were concerned with social anxiety and 15% over the fear of reconnecting).

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) defines social anxiety disorder as a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.

Most of us would have experienced social anxiety to some extent and it is normal to want to perform well. Anxiety in social situations and concerns overevaluation become problematic when the anxiety is persistent and causes intense distress. A person may be diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder if the anxiety and distress persist for more than six months.

Signs and Symptoms

People with social anxiety disorder may experience fear and anxiety in different social situations and in varying ways. The underlying common theme is a fear of being embarrassed, judged, or being rejected.

Some signs of social anxiety disorder include:

  • Fear of interacting with others
  • Feeling shy, easily embarrassed or being extremely self-conscious
  • Fear of appearing anxious e.g. blushing, stuttering, or running out of things to say
  • Fearing the worst will happen in social situations
  • Self-conscious thoughts e.g. “people will stare at me” or “people won’t like me”
  • Avoidance behaviour e.g. avoiding eye contact or general avoidance of social situations
  • Spending a significant amount of time dissecting past social interactions and focusing on what did not go well
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety during or before social situations e.g. increased heart rate, shortness of breath, blushing, sweating, trembling, nausea, and muscle tension

The reduced social interactions take away opportunities to practise social skills and overcome negative thoughts.

The Impact of the Circuit Breaker

For those experiencing social anxiety, the circuit breaker provides respite from the stress of having to interact socially. However, the extended period of social isolation or reduced social interactions are unhelpful as the lack of social interaction maintains or even exacerbates social anxiety. The reduced social interactions take away opportunities to practise social skills and overcome negative thoughts. Many may also miss positive social interactions that increase their sense of safety and confidence.

COVID-19 could also trigger symptoms arising from new concerns, such as going to the mall as this would mean proximity with others, temperature screenings before admission. The continuing threat of infection also increases fear of contamination and adds to the tension of individuals affected by social anxiety.

Social Anxiety Post Circuit Breaker

As Singapore moves out of the circuit breaker and progresses towards resumption of most social activities, people experiencing social anxiety may feel particularly anxious about returning to work or resuming other social activities. The fear of having to interact with people might be more overwhelming than before, especially after a few months of minimal social activities.

Those with social anxiety may feel more nervous about interacting with others in the new normal. They may be uncertain about what is expected and may fear doing the wrong things and subsequently being judged or embarrassed.

If you are experiencing social anxiety or just feeling anxious about returning to work, gatherings, or other social interactions, face it early and seek support if needed.

How to Manage Social Anxiety Post Circuit Breaker

If you are experiencing social anxiety, brace yourself to face your fears by following the recommended PEP Talk (Prepare, Expose, Practice and Talk) below.

Prepare

Prepare yourself adequately to encounter social situations by getting information about what you must do in each of the situations. For example, how to use safe entry for necessary contact tracing, what the new workplace guidelines for staff to maintain safe distancing are. You can also mentally visualise the situation and think through what you would do in each situation. By knowing what is expected and being better prepared, you will experience less uncertainty and feel less anxious.

Expose

Continuing to engage in social interaction is critical for people with social anxiety even though it might be uncomfortable. Facing your fears helps to overcome social anxiety. Avoidance of social situations will worsen your anxiety over time. You can start with social situations at work, which are essential. Draw a plan to ease yourself into different social situations. For example, you could start by smiling at your colleagues when entering the office, then challenging yourself to say ‘hello’ to them and progressing to small talk and even inviting them to lunch. You can also increase your social engagements by making appointments with your friends. Pacing yourself, gives you time to process your experiences and acknowledge your progress and build your confidence and sense of safety in social situations in the new normal. The key is to keep going and not avoid social interactions.

Practise

Before you get into anxious social situations, you can follow the steps above to prepare and ease yourself into them. You can also try role playing with the help of a friend if necessary. In social situations, be aware of your own thoughts and level of anxiety. When you find yourself starting to feel anxious, practise deep breathing and focus on your thoughts instead. Identify the thought that is causing you anxiety, check if your thought is reasonable and change your thought to something more positive and constructive. If you experience social anxiety, be patient and kind to yourself. Overcoming social anxiety is possible but it takes time. When you are less anxious, you can practise challenging your thoughts and come up with more positive ways of thinking. With persistent practice, social anxiety will decrease.

Talk

Find someone whom you trust to share your concerns and ask for help to journey with you. Prepare yourself, get exposed to social situations and practise more positive thinking and cultivate social skills. It may help to seek professional help to address your social anxiety. Social anxiety is highly treatable and techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and exposure therapy have been found to work well.

If you are experiencing social anxiety or just feeling anxious about returning to work, gatherings, or other social interactions, face it early and seek support if needed. Below are some resources that you can tap on to address your social anxiety:

  • Online self-help mental health resources and links to other support programmes and services
    https://stayprepared.sg/mymentalhealth/
  • Viriya Counselling Helpline
    Tel: 6256 1311
  • National Care Hotline
    Tel: 1800 202 6868

The contributor is a Psychologist at Viriya Community Services.