The Summer of Social Anxiety

COVID restrictions may be easing up, but that doesn’t mean everything feels normal again.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

This summer is going to look different from last year, mostly in a good way. We’re ready to spend a little extra time outside, hang with friends and family, and indulge in honest-to-goodness fun (remember that?). How do we do that safely? Your guide to a healthy, happy summer starts here.

Summer always tends to be the busiest time of year. Between vacation planning, summer camps, kids’ sleepovers, backyard parties, family reunions, and keeping the rest of your life in order, the season somehow flies by in a flash. This summer we’re all feeling the added urgency to make up for lost time, after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out normal routines in 2020. With the aid of modern medicine and impressive U.S. vaccination effort, we are slowly but surely coming out on the other side. The CDC announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors (although the World Health Organization advises still wearing one indoors to protect against the Delta variant), clearing the way for many of our old social routines to start up again.

This is great news, to be sure, so why does it feel so… weird? In part, experts say, it’s because socializing, like any learned behavior, gets easier with practice. With so much time spent in isolation, many people have lost their social “muscle memory” to comfortably engage in small talk and casual conversation. The American Psychological Association’s 2021 “Stress in America” poll reported that 49% of Americans feel uneasy about adjusting to social interaction again, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty drives anxiety and stress,” says Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for health care innovation for the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, DC. Even though COVID cases are declining in the U.S., there’s still a sense that maybe we don’t know all there is to know about the safety of public interactions. Is it really safe to be dining indoors with friends again? Can I trust people to be following CDC guidelines? For vaccinated people, there’s the question of how long the shots will last. Will we need boosters at some point? How will I know when my immunity starts to fade?

If you are feeling socially anxious right now, try not to be too hard on yourself. You are not alone in how you feel, but it will get easier. Start by following the advice here.

What Drives Social Anxiety?

There are a million reasons why 2020 was hard on people’s mental health. A global pandemic, economic recession, racial tension, and political unrest hit us all at once. A record number of Americans lost their jobs and their loved ones. And a state of extended ambiguity brings no clear answer about what the future will realistically look like. All this can contribute to something called “COVID anxiety syndrome,” a term coined by two researchers at London South Bank University that describes compulsive pandemic safety practices such as constant cleaning, obsessively checking yourself for symptoms, or feeling fearful of public places.

Humans are creatures of habit, and when we get used to living a certain way, it can be hard to readjust. Popular wisdom says it takes 21 days to form a habit, and we’ve been at this quarantine thing for more than 400 days now, so… safe to say those patterns are pretty solidified. Just because things are technically getting safer doesn’t mean you can flip a switch in your brain and say, OK, I’m vaccinated, back to normal! “We’ve been in this for a year, and change is hard,” Wright says. “So, having to relearn old routines can also bring about anxiety.” We’ve all gone through a collective trauma together, and there is no real point of comparison in modern history. “This has been unlike anything we have had to experience in our adult lifetimes,” Wright says. Because of that novelty, we can’t lean on prior knowledge or experience to give us a blueprint for how to emerge from this.

One thing is certain, though: People are really feeling the weight of this moment. A new poll from the American Psychiatric Association shows that four in 10 Americans are more anxious this year than last year. Black Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, report significantly higher levels of anxiety than white Americans, both for themselves and for the safety of their loved ones. Unfortunately, conflicting federal and state guidelines can add to the stress and burden. “As things reopen, people have to make calculated decisions about what’s safe and what’s not safe,” Wright says. “And there just isn’t a lot of hard data—it kind of depends on who you are, where you live, and what your circumstances are.” If someone in your household has an autoimmune condition, you’re probably going to feel differently about mask guidelines than if everyone was low risk. Same goes for those who live in states with lower vaccination rates, where it’s hard to tell if people are mask-less because of vaccination status or political beliefs. The temptation in those situations can be to avoid them altogether and stay inside.

Can Isolation Be a Good Thing?

Quarantine hasn’t been all bad, especially for people already prone to social anxiety or agoraphobia. “While there is so much loss over the last year, there have been some gains, too,” Wright notes. “People who have been able to work from home probably aren’t excited about returning to their 45-minute commute. Families have had the ability to slow down, take time to be together, and not have to worry about making it to soccer practice, baseball practice, and birthday parties.”

But there’s a difference between introversion (you’re comfortable being alone), and anxiety (interacting with others stresses you out). “It is likely that those with preexisting anxiety in social situations may have trouble readjusting,” says Kristin Szuhany, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. While some level of anxiety is normal right now, when that anxiety prohibits you from grabbing a drink with friends or doing things you truly used to enjoy, you might want to consider professional help. Not only does social anxiety isolate you from others, but if left untreated, it can contribute to numerous long-term health issues, including depression, chronic pain, and cognitive decline.

Tips for Managing Social Anxiety

The gold standard for treating anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a science-backed approach to psychotherapy that focuses on incremental change. In CBT, “we encourage gradual approaching of feared situations,” Szuhany explains. “For example, you might start one-on-one with a trusted friend and then progress to larger groups with other people.” This approach can help lessen your anxiety slowly, in a way that doesn’t feel too overwhelming.

  • Validate your own experience. Don’t beat yourself up mentally if you feel nervous about seeing old friends. “It is important to acknowledge that some anxiety is normative given the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic and the significant impact it has had on day-to-day experience and routines,” Szuhany says. Millions of people share your apprehension right now. Acknowledging the validity of your feelings can be the first step toward trying to change your mindset.

  • Start slow. Remember, social skills are a “muscle” that needs exercise to stay strong. If you haven’t worked out in a while, you’ll be reaching for the five-pound dumbbell, not the 15. Same goes here. Try calling up a friend for an outdoor dinner or lunch. Once that goes well, invite a few neighbors over for a summertime BBQ. Happy you took that leap? Maybe your cousin’s August wedding with 50+ people won’t be so bad, after all.

  • Develop self-soothing techniques. Anxiety isn’t always predictable, but it helps to focus on what you can control. Caught on the boardwalk or out at the street carnival when crowd panic strikes? Wright suggests trying practices like deep diaphragmatic breathing or meditation, which can come in handy if you find yourself panicking in public. “Having a toolkit of ways to help you calm down is going to be important,” she says. Even just knowing you are prepared might prevent the anxiety in the first place.

  • Be brave. “The worst thing you can do is to avoid contact altogether,” Wright says. “Then you are unintentionally telling your brain that you cannot handle this—and then you’ll start to believe it.” A central tenet of CBT: Safe exposure to anxiety triggers can help train your brain that these experiences aren’t as scary as you believe them to be.

  • Get help. There really is no substitute for professional guidance from a licensed psychotherapist. “Sometimes we need support and someone to validate how we’re feeling to help us move to that next step,” says Wright. Telehealth access has expanded during the COVID pandemic, and many providers and insurance companies now offer access to mental health services in a remote setting.

As bizarre as the last year has been, summer has a way of helping us all relax a little more. There’s something magical about the long days, warm nights, and joy of kids on summer vacation (even when they do stress you out). “I want to give a sense of hopefulness—I don’t think it’s going to feel awkward and anxiety-provoking forever,” Wright says. It’s OK to be a little anxious, but try your best to keep pushing through it. Be brave, be safe, and remember all the joy that this season can bring.

COVID Anxiety Syndrome: Psychiatry Research. (2020.) “The COVID-19 anxiety syndrome scale: Development and psychometric properties.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016517812032093X

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.