Over the last two years, with various forms of restrictions and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us haven't been able to return to our regular social and professional lives fully. We haven't had to use our social skills in a while, and we may be out of practice. As a result, stepping back into social life may feel a bit unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
Social contact is a need like any other. Just like we need food or water, we have a biological instinct to affiliate with social networks. When our social needs are not met, it can have significant consequences for our mental, emotional, and physical health.
It is natural to feel uneasy about what used to feel normal. After extended lengths of time, isolated people can end up feeling awkward and socially anxious in social settings. It is important the relearn our social skills to transition back into normalcy as easily as possible.
If you are worried about your social skills, the good news is that they can be relearned! It may take a bit of practice, and you need to ease back in, but here are some tips on how to exercise your social muscles:
If you are concerned about re-entering the social world, just remember this is a global pandemic, and almost everyone is in a similar position as you. You probably are not alone in feeling that awkwardness and anxiety. So, remember to be kind to yourself and others because this is new territory for all of us. Show yourself some compassion and recognize that your social limits may have shifted. Give yourself breaks because some social situations are more draining than others. Extend empathy to yourself and others.
Embrace the Awkward
It is okay if you are a bit rusty. Recognize that many people are in the same place as you are, and most likely, they can relate to what you are feeling. Tell a joke about how out of practice you are or express the awkwardness you feel; it might ease the tension and create a connection. Don't be embarrassed by awkward moments, either. If there is a pause in the conversation, be okay with the silence. You can also ask questions and practice listening skills. Do not retreat into isolation because things are a little awkward. It is important to keep trying, and things will get easier.
Ease into it
Start in situations where you are comfortable and with people you are comfortable with rather than jumping all in. Hang out with some close friends before you plan a big party full of strangers. Because your social limits and boundaries may have changed, you may want to take it slow at first while you assess what you are comfortable with. Communicate those comfort levels to the people you want to hang out with and ask them what theirs are.
Exercise your Social Muscles
Here are some exercises that you can do to dust off your social skills:
1. Share a meal with someone
Food is known to boost people's moods. Start on a good foot by going out for lunch, dinner, or just coffee with someone you haven't seen in a while. Plus, you can always talk about the food if the conversation gets slow. This is a great option for reconnecting with friends and family.
2. Tell a joke in person
Humour always makes everyone more comfortable and is a great way to ease tension and awkwardness. Practice being silly because laughing together strengthens connections.
3. Ask someone what they are watching, reading, or listening to
Finding something that you both can relate to will find common ground. Maybe there is a show that you both binged in quarantine, or you have the same favourite artist; you could exchange books or make watchlist recommendations. This exercise will help you connect and have something to talk about.
4. Talk to a stranger
Make small talk with the delivery person at your doorstep or the cashier at the grocery store. Practice social interactions with people you may never see again to stretch that muscle.
5. Reach out to some you have lost touch with
This can be nerve-racking, but it is important to rebuild social infrastructure. Make a phone call or write a text to someone you haven't talked to in a while.
6. Do an activity with someone
Go on a bike ride or a dance class; you could even do household chores like laundry or washing dishes. This gives you something else to focus on if you are having trouble while connecting and sharing an experience with someone else.
7. Sit quietly with someone
Practice your non-verbal communication skills by not always trying to fill the air. It can be awkward, but it is important to try and be comfortable with silence as a way to deepen a relationship.
Social awkwardness is a potential consequence of extended isolation. Some symptoms of this are:
The inability to understand subtle social cues or not knowing how to behave in social situations
Socially inappropriate behaviour, like oversharing or overtalking
Feelings of oversensitivity or hypervigilance
The desire to be around other people but experiencing difficulty in those situations
Overthinking what other people think and their intentions or misinterpreting them
Avoiding social interactions
Choosing solitary activities over social activities
You may be experiencing a little (or a lot) of social anxiety; It is okay and completely normal, especially after a long time in isolation. This will most likely go away as you ease back into society. However, if it is getting worse, you might be developing a deeper mental health concern.
There are some ways to manage social anxiety symptoms. Coping strategies like deep breathing, positive affirmations, and boundary setting may help calm social anxiety under challenging situations. Meditation and mindfulness can also help manage over-worrying and stress. Journaling has also proven to help identify underlying emotions and triggers.
If it starts to impede your daily life, or you are avoiding social experiences due to your anxiety, you should seek help from a mental health professional.