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Nervous about going back to ‘normal’? Here are some science-backed tips that may help!

August 19, 2021
By Tanya Singh

A return to in-person activities is on the horizon. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

Whether you’re coming back to campus this fall or starting to go into office again, a return to in-person activities is on the horizon. Of course, we should all get vaccinated, wear masks and practice social distancing to reduce the risk of getting COVID-19. But what about the nervousness surrounding social interactions that plagues us? What about our rusty social skills?

Staying at home during the pandemic helped reduce the number of infections and deaths, but it also left many of us feeling socially isolated and lonely. Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can lead to cognitive decline and weaken our ability to make social connections. Thankfully, research that draws on treatment of social anxiety has some insights that may come in handy.

  1. Are you anxious about others judging you? We are all emerging with varying levels of social awkwardness after our prolonged social hiatus. This may lead to a heightened fear of being judged in social situations. We must try to let go of this fear. Research has shown that we overestimate how much our peers judge us. In a research study where participants were asked to imagine committing a social faux pas, results showed that participants anticipated being judged very harshly. However, peer evaluations of their faux pas showed a much lower level of negative evaluation. Chances are, your peers are just as worried about humiliating themselves and are not focused on judging you. The best strategy is to relax and try to be yourself.

  2. Are you feeling pressured to fill up your social calendar? It’s natural to experience FOMO and want to attend EVERY social event that you’re invited you. But experts warn that too much too soon might not be the answer – rushing into a crowded space when you’re emotionally unready may trigger panic and a slew of negative emotions. Take things slow – give yourself the flexibility to ease back into your social life. Try and see close friends first – those who you feel comfortable with. A lot of people have realized that the strength of close friendships and family ties has offset the loss of more distant and casual friendships. If you are feeling rusty about talking to strangers, try joining an online community and exchanging opinions with strangers to build up your confidence. This ensures that you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone too quickly.

Hanging out with close friends/family is good place to start . Image by pisquels.
  1. Not sure what to say? Listen. Empathy is a superpower during these uncertain times. The best strategy when you’re not sure what to say is ask a question. Everyone’s been through a lot this past 18 months and a kind ear will not go amiss. Some questions to ask are “How are you feeling about coming back to campus/work?”; “What are you looking forward to?”, “Did you discover any interesting podcasts during the lockdown”, etc. Focusing on other people will keep you out of your own anxious mind and help you cope with an uncomfortable situation. Don’t expect every conversation to turn into a life-changing discourse – just try and find a bit of common ground.

  2. Psychologists who regularly treat patients with social anxiety are unanimous about the power of exposure. Exposure implies small, increased doses of what we fear. In the case of social awkwardness, exposure would be slowly increasing the amount of time we spend with others, gradually expanding our friend circle and increasing our comfort level. Avoidance of situations is considered counterproductive – as it breeds more avoidance. If you do find yourself feeling overwhelmed by social interactions, take a step back and attend an online event instead of an in-person activity. Or hang out with close friends or family that you feel comfortable with. But try and slowly increase your ability to make social connections.

I hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you try and transition back to in-person life. Of course, it is normal to feel fear and anxiety about transitioning to our pre-pandemic lives. If you do feel overwhelmed, do not hesitate to reach out - here is a list of resources available to you. The pandemic has taught us that we can be incredibly resilient – and that gives me hope for our future.

About the author

Photo of Tanya Singh

Tanya Singh is a doctoral candidate in Marketing at the John Molson School of Business. Tanya holds a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s in Engineering in Biotechnology. Prior to starting her PhD in marketing, she carried out research in genetics.

Tanya leverages her interdisciplinary background to study consumer decision making. She examines the consequences of putting off choices on consumer behavior. Her dissertation examines how putting off decisions can have significant impact on subsequent consumer decisions. She is the recipient of the Howard Webster Award for Graduate Excellence. She is also involved in developing and delivering a data analysis workshop at targeted towards graduate students at Concordia University.

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