How Social Distancing Has Made My Social Anxiety Worse

In theory, my social anxiety should be super calm right now, because there’s nothing to miss out on. Nope!

For those with social anxiety, you know the uncontrollable, irrational feeling of people watching you, judging you, or being annoyed by you. So, in theory, now that we’re all social distancing, those feelings should just go away, right?

Not in the slightest.

As someone who’s socially anxious and a highly sensitive introvert, I’ve always struggled with socializing. It wasn’t that I hated it, per se, but I tended to be nervous around people I didn’t know, and I was always terrified of saying the wrong thing. In reality, I can be quite outgoing and bold with my favorite people — I enjoy spending my time with those whose energy isn’t overwhelming. But after being in busy, loud, large spaces that drain me, I need alone time to re-energize. 

For most of my life, I just considered myself to be shy. As a teen, I used my mother saying no as an excuse more times than I could count. As a college kid, I only had a few close friends, but they accepted, and even sometimes understood, my times of self-isolation.

Then, in my early 20s, I learned about social anxiety and my entire life finally made sense. Social anxiety and introversion aren’t the same thing, but, for me, they tend to intertwine, making social moments even less appealing and even more draining. But, on the other hand, enough time alone meant my social anxiety would amp up in other ways. 

Too Much Alone Time Worsens My Social Anxiety 

As my new awareness developed, I actively started to limit my activities, focusing on those that gave me joy and staying away from those that were draining or anxiety-inducing. My friend circle became even smaller while growing stronger: My best friends knew my preferences, inviting me along but understanding when I said no, and always calling me for movie nights or homework parties, as we still called them after college. 

But just because I had a greater awareness of my social anxiety didn’t mean that it disappeared. Too much time by myself and my social anxiety would rear its head in other ways. Although an introvert, I got nervous when left alone.

For example, if a good friend didn’t reach out to me often enough and I happened to see them having fun over social media, my irrational — but real — fears kicked in. Feelings of loneliness and worthlessness turned my thoughts into a downward spiral, often further isolating me because I became too scared to reach out. 

Social Distancing Amplifies My Social Anxiety

In theory, my social anxiety should be super calm with everyone practicing social distancing. There’s nothing to miss out on! I don’t have to worry about awkward encounters or big crowds or pointless networking. Plus, I’m in my own space with all my favorite hobbies to engage in, so shouldn’t I be feeling great?

Nope.

While my highly sensitive nature has taken a bit of a break thanks to my being so far away from overstimulating people, my social anxiety has amped up tenfold. Remember that irrational fear of people being annoyed by you? (Waves hello!) Being isolated has only made it worse. Despite any work I’ve done to temper it, it’s back with a vengeance, saying: 

  • “They don’t want to hear from me.” 
  • “They have so much going on with their family, I should leave them alone.” 
  • “I’m sure they’re having tons of fun so why would I interrupt that?” 
  • Oh, and my personal favorite demon, “They’re not reaching out to me so they must not want to talk to me.” 

Even though it’s the only way to stay in contact with people right now, I avoid texting or calling because a part of me is worried my friends will want to talk for hours instead of just saying a quick hello. But at the same time, I know I’ll be upset if I do reach out and they don’t respond. By not saying anything at all, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness weave their way in and send me into that downward spiral I used to experience after extended periods alone. 

It’s a delicate balance to play with: I want that communication and connection, but I also know how easily I become overwhelmed or tired from even the shortest of conversations, especially since right now a lot of them revolve around the same topics: sickness, fear, scarcity, death. 

As someone who isn’t the best at initiating conversations or continuing one, it feels even more frightening to talk to people in this time of social distancing. The non-stop hamster wheel in my mind is exhausting, and by the time I get done thinking about it all, the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone — even my closest friends.  

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How to Deal With Social Anxiety in This Strange Time 

This is a strange time for all of us. For those with social anxiety, the current crisis can easily amp up the emotions of loneliness and worthlessness that pop up when we want to connect but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of it. 

Recognize this fact. Then do something about it. If we pretend it’s not there, it will simply fester. I’ve found that there are a few things that have helped me calm down when my social anxiety makes it seem like everything is out of control:

  • Breathe for five. Take a deep breath in through your nose for five counts, hold it for five more, and then sigh it out. Do that three times, at least. Feel the tension in your shoulders drop. This will help center you and allow clear thinking.
  • Find a mantra. I have a few go-tos, like, “My friends and family love me for who I am,” and “They want to hear from me.” Find some that work for you, especially as they relate to your social anxiety. Write them down in your phone, post them throughout the house, or make a pretty picture out of them. Whatever it takes to remind you that it’s okay to reach out. 
  • Perform a social action. Send a text, one that doesn’t require a reply, like, “Just sending a quick hello! Hope you’re well!” or “Love you!” Maybe the first is a little formal for your mom, and the second is too much for a friend, but the idea is to let someone else know that you’re thinking of them. Maybe it’ll start a conversation, maybe it won’t, but each time you do something, you’ll feel better. Each time you get a response, you’ll be reassured. If they don’t respond? Repeat those mantras. 
  • Connect with your favorites. Reach out to your most trusted person and remember they have this title because they understand you. They’re not going to view your need to connect as an intrusion. And if they’re “your” person, you can be honest enough with them to admit what you need. It’s okay to say that you need to talk, while sharing that it’d be too much if it turned into a long conversation. 

It surprised me that social distancing would have such a strong effect on my social anxiety. Even within this paradox, by naming the feeling, I immediately calm it.

By taking steps to combat it, we empower ourselves. Anyone with social anxiety knows that it doesn’t go away. I’ve had it for 29 years, so no amount of therapy is going to make it 100% disappear. But there are steps to make it less overpowering.

Are you experiencing heightened social anxiety during this crisis? How are you dealing with it? Let me know in the comments below.

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I teach reading and writing by day to high schoolers — with coffee to get me through — followed by ice cream at night to enjoy with my own reading and writing.