Social anxiety is real. Whether you had it before the pandemic or think you got is after sheltering in place, it's no joke. Social anxiety ranges from mild to debilitating, but either way, it affects our ability to live our proverbial best lives.
Because I am slightly uneasy about my own journey into re-entering public places for longer than five minutes, I reached out to therapist Kristin Belkofer MS, LPC, whom I interviewed when she opened CLARA Healing Institute, and asked her for a few tricks to try if social anxiety creeps in during upcoming outings.
Belkofer came up with three, quick exercises that could be helpful to reducing social anxiety.
1. Do a "test run" before an event.
If there is an event that you are looking forward to that might involve crowds or large groups, give yourself a few “test runs” with smaller outings in advance. If possible, familiarize yourself with the space.
From a practical standpoint, you can anticipate areas of an environment where people might gather and identify a few areas where you could step aside to feel safely distanced.
This helps from a neuroscience perspective as well. Even if your logic brain is saying “it’s going to be fine,” it’s fair that your lower, survival brain is not quite convinced yet! It’s likely been confused and “on guard" for the past year. That part of the brain might need some trial runs in small doses to build up it’s resilience and comfort level again, before you can feel more able to be present and enjoy yourself.
2. Try breathing techniques.
Even without the pandemic, I think it’s wise to have a few tried-and-true breathing techniques on hand that you have practiced in case you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious. These will work better if you practice in advance!
One of my favorites is 4-7-8 breathing. Don’t worry too much about the numbers, that’s just a guide.
- Breathe in, through your nostrils, for four counts (one…two…three…four…)
- Hold your breath for roughly seven counts (this might take a little practice; do as much as you can).
- Exhale, through your mouth, for eight counts. The idea here is to force out as much of the old, deoxygenated air out of your lungs to make way for new air and full, deeper fresh breaths. I will sometimes tell clients to envision letting all of the air out of a balloon s l o w l y.
- Repeat this whole process 5-6 times. If you place your hand on your heart while you breathe, you might be able to feel your heart rate go down (or see it on an Apple Watch, Fitbit, etc). This works even better if you do this with someone, or they count steadily for you.
3. Carry cold water.
This might sound a little goofy, but it actually works. Stress and anxiety cause an increase in core body temperature as the body reacts to a perceived threat with increased heart rate and blood flow, and constricted blood vessels.
Pack a bottle of very cold or even frozen water with you for outings. If you feel anxiety increase, place it on your forehead or the back of your neck. Take a drink if you can, the colder the better.
The rapid temperature shift sends messages to your brain to “reset” your nervous system, telling it that it’s OK to decrease all that internal activity a bit.
And remember that it's OK to take it slow.