As social creatures, humans have lived for thousands of years as a part of family units and communities. Social distancing during the pandemic can leave us feeling lonely, isolated, and yearning for interaction with other people
But there are ways to get social support even if you do not think you have any. And do not worry if you have trouble building relationships or you have anxiety about social situations, because we have tips for that, too!
Research has shown that connecting with other people is crucial for maintaining our psychological and physical health. Loneliness and isolation are linked to higher risk for several mental and physical conditions, including heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease. Social isolation has also been linked to an increased risk for early mortality. In addition to improving health outcomes, social support can actually offset vulnerability to mental illness and boost emotional well-being, increasing resilience to stress by fostering good coping strategies and making an impact on a neurobiological level.
Johns Hopkins Medicine Called to Care, a program helping caregivers build solid support systems, explains that social support can provide both emotional assistance (e.g., someone who listens to and encourages you) and attitude transmission (e.g., someone who helps you laugh or see things more positively.)
Called to Care recommends taking stock of your current social support system. Who is currently in your social support system, if anyone? Some examples could be:
- Partner or spouse
- Other relatives
- Healthcare provider
- Support group or club
- Religious organization
After checking in with yourself about who is in your current social support system, Called to Care recommends assessing whether anything might be getting in the way of you accessing your support system. Are there reasons why you do or do not use your support system? Are there practical reasons that you do not make use of your support system, like maintaining social distance during the pandemic? Are there beliefs or attitudes that prevent you from accessing your social support system, such as believing that leaning on other people is a sign of weakness?
Called to Care urges people to problem-solve to identify steps they could take to cope with barriers – practical and belief-driven – that prevent them from getting support. For example, if you believe that you should not need social support because that makes you a ‘weak’ person, you could evaluate how accurate and helpful this belief is. If you are feeling isolated because you live far away from family or friends, you could consider reaching out and scheduling a weekly Zoom or phone call with them.
Do you feel that you do not have a support system, or that yours could be more stronger? If so, there are many other ways besides phone and video chats to get creative about building new social connections and keeping up with the ones you have. Read on for some suggestions.
Reconnect with old friends
If you are feeling as though you do not have much social support right now, it is worth scrolling through your contacts in your phone and on social media to see if there are any friends or family members with whom you have fallen out of touch. You can also browse through your calendar from the last few years to remind yourself of activities and clubs in which you might have participated. Re-establishing connections with family members, friends, and groups may be easier than forming new friendships since a relationship with these people already exists. Sending a simple message such as, “I’m so sorry we lost touch, but would love to reconnect with you! When do you have time for a video chat this week?” can go a long way towards rekindling an old relationship.
Go deeper with existing contacts
It may be the case that you feel lonely and disconnected, even if you are technically surrounded by people. You may have acquaintances, work colleagues, and neighbors in your network with whom you could develop closer friendships. Perhaps you go on a walk around the neighborhood every day and often run into the same neighbor. If you are looking to grow your social network, it would be worth saying ‘hi’ to this person, and striking up a conversation. (See the section below on ‘Social Skills’ if this is an area where you struggle.) It can also pay to be transparent, so do not be shy about informing people that you would like to make new friends. You can say something such as, “I have been cooped up all winter, but would love to start getting to know more people in our building. If you hear about any community events, let me know.” This may feel risky to you, but remember that most people will likely want to help, and are judging you much less harshly than you might be judging yourself.
With closer friends or family members, you could also initiate regular phone or video chats using Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, or any other platform you prefer. Sending voice memos or video messages through a video platform like Marco Polo can feel more personal than text messages.
Become part of something bigger than yourself
Many clubs and volunteer organizations have transitioned to online meet-ups during the pandemic. This means that not only are you still able to join these activities, but you may also have the opportunity to make friends with people from all over the country or even the world — all while contributing to something that you are passionate about.
When looking to make new friends, it is helpful to find a club or organization focused on a topic or cause that you care about or are interested in, whether that is languages, nature, books, film, a sport, or something else. MeetUp.com lists hundreds of local meet-up groups centered around different areas of interest, including career and business; outdoors, adventure, sports, and fitness; language and culture, and many more.If you have scanned the offerings and nothing strikes your fancy, consider starting your own interest group.
You could also consider joining a free friend online matching platform, like Bumble BFF, or exchanging letters through a pen pal platform like Pen Pal World. If you graduated from high school or college, you might want to think about getting connected with your alumni network. For those aged 60 and above, the Institute on Aging staffs a Friendship Line with trained volunteers who offer a caring ear and friendly conversations to older adults who may be feeling isolated and lonely.
Many volunteering organizations have moved training and opportunities online. If you have a passion for social justice work or activism, volunteering online will not only help you focus on creating change in a way that is consistent with your values, but will also help you connect with others with a similar passion. Bonding with others with similar values and focusing on something greater than yourself will go a long way toward alleviating feelings of loneliness. A shared cause or topic will make starting and maintaining conversations with new people easier. The more consistently the group meets, the more opportunities for social contact and the more likely that friendships will develop.
Growing your social skills
After several months of staying at home, you might be feeling like your social skills are a bit rusty. Or perhaps you have struggled with social skills for a long time. When making small talk, it can be difficult to think of things to say. Conversely, it can also be tough to know if you are talking too much and dominating the conversation. If you feel a bit at a loss when it comes to starting a conversation or carrying one on, read on.
Anxiety Canada offers some great tips on how to start conversations.
- Remember to pay attention to your nonverbal behavior. Make eye contact and speak loudly enough so that others can hear you.
- Say something general and not too personal, for example, talk about the weather (“Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”); make an observation (“I noticed that you were not in meetings last week; did you take some time off?”); or introduce yourself (“I don’t think we have met, I’m…”).
- Once you have talked for a while, especially if you have known the person for some time, it might be appropriate to move on to more personal topics, e.g relationships; family matters; personal feelings; spiritual beliefs; etc.
- Try giving someone a compliment, but make sure you do this sincerely.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center (MIRECC)’s conversation skills guide also recommends introducing yourself to a new or unfamiliar person with a simple ‘hi.’ As Anxiety Canada notes, sincerity and genuineness can go a long way in kick off a conversation; there is no need to say anything extremely witty.
In terms of keeping a conversation going, Anxiety Canada recommends the following strategies:
- Remember that a conversation is a 2-way street – don’t talk too little, or too much. As much as possible, try to contribute to about 50% of the conversation when speaking one on one with another person.
- Disclose some personal information about yourself, such as your weekend activities, your favourite hockey team, or a hobby or interest. Personal information does not need to be “too personal”; you can start with giving your opinion about movies and books, or talking about things that you like doing.
- Try to show a little vulnerability. It can even be okay to admit that you are a bit nervous (for example, “I never know what to say to break the ice”). Take care, though – sometimes disclosing too much too soon can put others off.
- Ask questions about the other person. Remember that people generally like to talk about themselves, especially if the other person is listening and showing genuine interest.
- When you are first getting to know someone, though, take care not to ask questions that are too personal. Appropriate questions might be to ask about their weekend activities, their preferences, or their opinion about something you said.
- Try to ask open-ended questions rather than close-ended questions. A close-ended question is one that is answered by a few words, such as yes or no, for example, “Do you like your job?” In contrast, an open-ended question invites much more detail; for example, “How did you get into your line of work?”
The Department of Veterans Affairs also recommends maintaining a conversation by expressing your feelings and opinions by making brief statements about how something makes you feel. Examples of feeling words are “happy,” “sad,” “excited,” “frustrated,” “disappointed,” and “worried.” So, if you are commenting to a neighbor on the weather, you might say something like, “I am disappointed that it is cloudy again today, but looking forward to the sunshine in the forecast.” Anxiety Canada also suggests challenging yourself to share your thoughts and feelings if you are not someone who typically shares these things. Experiment with breaking some of your typical patterns, and see how others react.
Remember that social skills take practice, so if you have struggled with them in the past, it might take time to see a difference. Seek out opportunities to practice starting and maintaining conversations: chat with your neighbors, people taking the elevator with you, store clerks, and co-workers. Invite co-workers for ‘virtual coffee’ or lunch. It may feel awkward at first, especially if you have not been very socially active during the pandemic, but try to view each new person you meet as a golden opportunity to practice your conversation skills.
How to combat social anxiety
Even if you feel that you have good social skills, you may still be anxious about entering social situations.
Most of us get anxious when we have to speak in front of large groups of people. But social anxiety becomes problematic when it interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life, and when it becomes distressing to you. Social anxiety is extremely common, though, affecting 15 millions Americans.
People who have social anxiety are fearful of being judged, criticized, or rejected by others. They often avoid interacting with other people so they do not have to feel so afraid. Social distancing during the pandemic makes it easier for people with social anxiety to avoid social interaction, which can provide emotional relief in the short-term. However, avoiding interacting with other people can maintain social anxiety in the long-term. Spending a lot of time alone during the pandemic might make it more difficult to transition to normal social activities when restrictions lift. People with social anxiety might worry excessively about their ability to re-adjust to ‘normal life.’
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a gold-standard treatment for social anxiety, involves gradually encouraging people with social anxiety to enter feared situations and remain in them.
Most people feel anxious in social situations from time to time. CBT strategies are extremely helpful at challenging some of the beliefs and behaviors that may be contributing to social anxiety.
Anxiety Canada recommends building out your CBT toolbox with the following techniques:
- Observe your social anxiety
Understanding your social anxiety is the first step to managing it. Get more familiar with your social anxiety, including which social situations you experience it in (e.g. speaking on Zoom meetings, making phone calls) and what your physical symptoms might be (e.g. sweating, blushing, heart beating quickly.) It can help to keep track of your symptoms on a piece of paper by making a chart with 3 columns: date, situation, and anxiety symptoms.
You can use this chart to help you monitor situations that trigger anxiety and note your experiences in these situations.
On the subject of observing social anxiety, remember that people with social anxiety tend to concentrate on themselves during social situations, which can magnify their anxiety. They may analyze their social performance during and after social situations. Be mindful of what other people are saying and doing during social situations to keep your anxiety at a more manageable level, and try to redirect your attention to the task at hand if you find yourself mentally beating yourself up after the fact.
2. Learn to think more realistically
People with social anxiety tend to experience negative thinking about themselves and what might happen in social situations. According to the Centre for Clinical Innovation, people with social anxiety overestimate the cost and probability of something bad happening. They tend to think of social situations as threatening or dangerous, which can drive their anxiety.
Some examples of negative thoughts that people with social anxiety have:
- “I’ll have no idea what to say”
- “I’ll get anxious and other people will see”
- “I’m going to say something stupid”
- “I’ll make a mistake”
- “Other people find me boring”
Anxiety Canada recommends treating thoughts as guesses about what might take place, rather than as actual facts. The more you develop more accurate, helpful ways of thinking about social situations, the better you will be able to manage your social anxiety.
How to recognize your thinking in social situations
- Check in with yourself about what you are worried might take place in a social situation, whether it’s something you fear that you might do or something you fear that others might think about you.
- Keep track of your negative thoughts in writing when you feel anxious or feel like avoiding or escaping a social situation. If it is tough to think of your precise thought during a social situation, try to write it down right before you enter or right after you leave. Do this for about a week.
- Evaluate your negative thoughts. Ask yourself whether your thoughts are based on actual facts, and whether they are helpful. If they are not based on facts and they are not helpful, try to identify more realistic, useful thoughts.
Debra Hope, Richard Heimberg, and Cynthia Turk, authors of the book Managing Social Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach Workbook and Anxiety Canada recommend several questions to examine your thoughts:
- Do I know for certain that _____ ?
- Am I 100% sure that ____ ?
- What evidence do I have that ___ ?
- What is the worst that could happen? How bad is that?
- Do I have a crystal ball?
- Is there another explanation for ____ ?
- Does ____ have to lead to or equal ____ ? Is there another point of view?
- Is ___ so important that my whole future depends on it?
- Am I responsible for the whole conversation?
- What can I do to cope with this situation?
- What would I say to a friend having this thought? What would a friend say to me?
You will likely realize, after examining your negative thinking, that what you fear is not very likely to take place — and, if it does happen, it is not as terrible as you might think, and you can handle it. As with observing your thoughts, it is also helpful to practice challenging your thoughts by writing them down.
Situation: Having to give a presentation at work
Feeling: Anxious, nervous
Physical symptoms: Upset stomach, dizzy, dry mouth, sweating
Thought: “Everyone will laugh at me”
Do I have a crystal ball? No, I don’t actually know how others will respond to my presentation.
What can I do to handle this situation? I can do my best to prepare, but I cannot control how other people respond.
What would a friend say to me? My friend would say no one seems to even notice much when I am nervous, and that most people end up thanking me for presenting.
Keep in mind that people with social anxiety tend to hold perfectionistic expectations for themselves in social situations. They believe that social mistakes are unacceptable, and will result in others’ disapproval. Try to refocus your thinking on your social performance being “good enough” rather than needing to be perfect.
3. Facing your fears
Remember that avoiding social situations relieves anxiety in the short-term, but increases anxiety in the long-term because you do not get the chance to learn that your fears do not come true, or, if they do, they are not as terrible as you think. The most effective way to learn this is through a CBT technique called “exposure.”
- Here are the steps that Anxiety Canada recommends to guide yourself through social exposure:Make a list of the social situations that you fear (e.g. making a phone call, speaking up during a meeting, striking up a conversation with a grocery store clerk.) Many people with social anxiety are worried about public speaking, socializing casually, being assertive, managing conflict, being the focus of attention, eating in front of other people, and speaking to unfamiliar people and authority figures.
The National Social Anxiety Center recommends some ways to practice exposure safely during social distancing, based on what your triggers are:
- Post an opinion on social media. This might be sharing a simple preference of yours, sharing something intentionally “different,” or offering an opinion you are passionate about.
- Post in the comments section of an article about what you thought of the story.
- Post an update of how you are surviving during COVID-19. Use a video for greater difficulty.
- Eat food in a public space where you can be observed by others.
- Ask a friend to “observe” you typing or writing virtually.
- Host (vs. just attending) a virtual meet-up. Consider asking friends to invite people whom you do not know.
- Order something over the phone, then change your mind and decide not to order it.
- Disagree with someone respectfully on a post or comment.
- Call the mayor’s office of your city or town and ask for guidance regarding current social distancing practices.
- Call a store and ask to speak to the manager. Ask them a question that they probably won’t know such as “when will you be serve food again?”
- Call a business that does sales (cars, insurance, etc.) and ask some questions. Say no thanks after they give you information or their sales pitch.
- Join a webinar and ask a question during a presentation.
Making a mistake on purpose or breaking a social “rule”, known as a social mishap exposure, is a research-backed, very powerful way to challenge your expectations about negative consequences in social situations. These exposures may feel silly and intimidating at first. But, as you face your fears and learn how often your feared expectations actually come true, your anxiety will lessen more and more, and you will likely begin to feel quite liberated.
Here are some ideas from the National Social Anxiety Center:
- Walk backwards on a public street
- Lie down on the sidewalk
- Ask a stranger to borrow $1
- Ask a stranger if you can buy them a cup of coffee
- Sing a song out loud near people on the sidewalk
- Ask a stranger for their number
- Ask for directions to the place you are standing in front of
- Rank all your realistic and social mishap exposure situations on a scale from a 1 to a 10, with 1 being a situation that triggers little anxiety and avoidance, and 10 being a situation that triggers extreme anxiety and avoidance.
- Starting with the least triggering situation, repeat the activity or enter the social situation until you consistently feel less anxious doing it. A good rule of thumb is to stay in the situation until your anxiety drops by 50%. So, if your anxiety level starts at a 4, stay in the situation until it falls to a 2.
- Safety behaviors, or subtle avoidance behaviors, are strategies that people with social anxiety use to feel safer in social situations instead of avoiding social situations outright. These strategies reduce anxiety temporarily, but make it worse in the long-term.
Some common safety behaviors include:
- Looking busy by going on your phone
- Mentally distracting yourself by trying to think about other things
- Mentally reviewing the social situation after the fact
- Over-preparing for social situations or rehearsing what you will say
- Asking the other person lots of questions or changing the topic to avoid having to talk about yourself
It is important to recognize and reduce these safety behaviors in general and when you are doing your exposures, since they prevent you from learning that social situations are not dangerous.
As you gain more confidence through exposure, consider using some of the social skills strategies from the previous section to expand your friendship network and start meeting new people. Ask co-workers for virtual coffee, join a meet-up group based on something you are passionate about, volunteer virtually, take a class, or start online dating.
Also note that many people with social anxiety believe that they do not have good social skills, when in reality, they have good social skills but lack confidence. If you do struggle with social skills, you can use both the social skills practice described above in addition to the skills for combating social anxiety.
Also, remember to be opportunistic about exposure practice. Even after you have worked through your list of triggering situations, it is important to stay in shape and practice your skills. If you see an opportunity in real life to challenge yourself, consider this a bonus and go for it!