Coping with current times if you have social phobia

Many people in Australia are nervous about social settings or perhaps feeling re-entry anxiety as the pandemic continues to change our approach to daily life.

Social phobia

But social phobia isn’t just about being nervous or uncomfortable around others, it's a mental and physical battle for those who experience it. If this is you, the current stage of the pandemic may be particularly challenging as life continues to look more like it did before the pandemic began.

“The pandemic provided a bit of a haven where suddenly people living with social phobia didn’t have to stretch themselves and for some, it was a comfortable place to be,” says Dr Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser.

Now, not only is that haven slowly being removed, the fact that it existed for a relatively long period of time may have an impact, too.

“When you think about the sort of exposure therapy we use to help people with social phobia, in a way they’ve been doing the exact opposite lately, so that their world may have narrowed and they’re no longer stretching themselves.”

Coping with re-entry

So, what now? Blashki says the most important thing is to “avoid avoidance” and offers a handful of suggestions to help you do that in a way that’s both effective and as comfortable as possible.

1. Start small and build

While it’s good to keep pushing yourself right now, it’s important to do it gently. Blashki suggests writing a list of the situations you find challenging, before ranking them in order of least to most confronting and starting at the beginning.

“That might be something as simple as going to a crowded area in the city and sitting there for five minutes before returning home, and working up from there.”

While it’s good to keep pushing yourself right now, it’s important to do it gently. Blashki suggests writing a list of the situations you find challenging, before ranking them in order of least to most confronting and starting at the beginning.

“That might be something as simple as going to a crowded area in the city and sitting there for five minutes before returning home, and working up from there.”

2. Give it some thought.

As well as allowing yourself time and space to sit with the worry in each of the situations you expose yourself to, planning conversations ahead of time can be useful.

“For example if you’re attending a gathering, think about a few topics to take along with you, whether that’s having a couple of books or movies up your sleeve to talk about or a few ideas about a holiday you hope to take.”

3. Be proactive.

If you’re not comfortable with physical contact, particularly in light of COVID, be assertive.

“Rather than waiting until someone lunges in to hug or kiss you hello, be up-front and explain that you’re keeping your distance right now. As well as allowing you to feel more in control and comfortable, it also avoids people misinterpreting your actions, which can happen if you pull away or back off without giving them a chance to understand why you’ve reacted that way.”

4. Take steps to stay in the moment.

If you notice your mind starting to race or feel like everyone is looking at or judging you, make the effort to refocus.

“A common experience for people living with social phobia is imagining what other people are thinking or feeling about you and that can lead to the sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive, which causes things like blushing, sweating or feeling panicked. If you notice that beginning in a social setting, try to focus on the here and now, which might mean paying close attention to what people are wearing or focusing on a particular object – whatever works to get out of your own head.”

5. Be patient.

Blashki says it’s important to be both hopeful and self-compassionate. “Readjusting uses quite a lot of mental energy, so don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling quite exhausted during this process. But if you continue to take it slowly, you might also surprise yourself by how well you can engage again and start to get your mojo back.”

Where to find support

If you’d like to talk to someone about what you’re feeling, contact Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service. Trained counsellors are available 24/7 for a chat over the phone or online.

It may also help to familiarise yourself with effective treatments for anxiety (you can download Guide to What Works for Anxiety here).

Or talk to your GP about your concerns if you feel like you’re not coping.

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