Did you know that people with small social networks tend to have smaller amygdalas than those with large networks? The amygdala is the part of our brain in charge of emotional processing, and having a smaller one can cause you to turn down a paranoid, negative road.
Many of us became grumps during the pandemic.
People didn’t follow enough rules, people didn’t loosen up enough when the rules were off, people didn’t care about other people, they only cared about themselves…
The frustrated list of spiraling thoughts goes on. We’ve all been there.
When we limit ourselves to only a few people, our ability to sympathize and socialize shrinks. If you’re feeling a bit rusty in conversations these days, you’re not alone, and you’re not to blame. It’s simply psychology that you need time to adjust.
Accept That We’re All a Little Socially Anxious Right Now
Two weeks of change is something we can bounce back from. Years of change, however, cements in our bodies as learned behaviors. Plus, many people experienced trauma associated with coronavirus, whether through losing a loved one, a physical ability, their sense of community, or their steady income.
Everyone was told that wearing masks and social distancing was the safest thing we could do. Reverting back to what we did before may be fine, but what if we grew accustomed to wearing masks and enjoying a little more personal space?
Standing close to strangers on a crowded sidewalk again triggers that alarm in our 2020 brain, saying, “Back up! This is dangerous!” Even if it’s not dangerous anymore, the act alone is something we associate with danger. It still feels dangerous, even when it’s not.
Pushing ourselves into circumstances that feel dangerous triggers feelings of anxiety. To ease the discomfort, remind yourself that everyone’s nervous in some way. You’re allowed to have awkwardly timed comments on a date, because odds are your date will, too.
Start with a Small Friend Group, Then Slowly Open Up to Friends-of-Friends
Some people may prefer to face their fears head-on, and though they feel anxious, they still accept the invite to visit a crowded amusement park. Exposure therapy is their preferred route.
However, not everyone likes to cannonball into cold swimming pools. Others prefer to dip a toe in, then their leg, then their torso, then their head. Some people would rather wade in the shallow end until they get up the nerve to swim again.
If you’re nervous to get out there again, consider taking it slow. Meet a friend for coffee instead of attending your first 10+ person party in two years. Plan a four-person board game night instead of an entire family reunion. Science tells us that habitual, small steps help manage the anxiety that comes with re-entry.
When it comes to dating, don’t be afraid to pull a vibe check with a FaceTime call instead of a more intimate dinner. Dating multiple people until you find “the one” is normal, so if you fear physically meeting multiple people right now, take advantage of in-between options like video calls to see if moving forward is even worth it.
Allow Yourself to Crave Social Time and Be Afraid of It At the Same Time
Many of us crave the good times we used to have meeting enchanting strangers at parties, long-lost family members at weddings, and friends of friends at brunch. However, our conversations with them now may be tainted with hesitation. And that’s okay.
No matter what, social muscles are resilient things. Depending on how social we were before the pandemic, many of us have changed brain chemistry simply due to social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
Turn having fear back to having fun. Working with an anxiety therapist like myself to explore coping skills and dispel irrational anxieties is a great way to transition back into normal life.