Person stood in front of a sunrise. Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash
Person stood in front of a sunrise. Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Re-entering a social world

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, you may feel anxious or ambivalent about re-engaging with a social world. Either way, you are not alone. Throughout the pandemic, the Counselling Service has created a series of blogs and podcasts to support your mental health, and this latest blog offers tips and advice on how to readjust to life in a more pre-pandemic world. 

Taking the first steps 

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, you may feel anxious or ambivalent about re-engaging with a social world. If so, you are not alone. In some cases, this may result from continued anxiety about the pandemic: it may be hard to trust that socialising is safe. Or you may worry you won’t have the confidence and social skills to navigate in a social world. Even those who feel relaxed about the coronavirus and excited to socialise again may worry about whether they are doing it ‘right’, or about balancing a resurgent social life while coping with academic demands. All of these things are natural, and there are many ways to take care of yourself so that your experience of social re-entry is a positive one.

Moving out of lockdown

It’s been a strange year. For so long behaviours like standing close to someone, being in the same room or receiving a hug have been branded unsafe and in breach of guidance. Now restrictions are gradually easing, but we may not know whether to relax and trust the changes, or to brace ourselves for a possible return to a more restricted regime. It’s natural that some people are going to feel more cautious than others in the face of uncertainty. Some might even keep themselves in voluntary lockdown, staying in their rooms and avoiding social interactions because this feels safer and more predictable.

If you are feeling stuck, pause and reflect: is your choice really informed by your perception of risks related to COVID, or is it a response to the anxiety associated with re-entry? Many of us can ‘see’ that the risk is now reduced, but struggle to get past the re-entry anxiety.

Deciding what's reasonable

This anxiety is normal: often when we haven’t done something for a while, restarting it leads to a spike in anxiety and this anxiety leads us to focus on the negative possibilities rather than the positive ones. We often create ‘what if’ worries or worst-case scenarios. This disaster-planning often comes from a belief that it’s good to be prepared but we can end up creating an exaggerated sense of social danger. It may help to remember that the reality is often better than the imagination suggests. For example, we might dread joining others at the pub but find we feel much happier once we are there.

If you know you are prone to avoiding, it may be a good idea to decide e.g., at the start of the week what a “reasonable” amount of social contact might be and commit to doing that, rather than feeling in a constant state of indecision about whether to go out or to stay in.

Finding the right balance

Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, you may at first feel more self-conscious in social settings—like you are in a bright spotlight of attention and hyper-aware of how you are coming across. If this happens, try to move the spotlight of your attention onto others. Remember, other people are far less focussed on what is going on for you and probably more interested in themselves or something on their mind. Even when we feel really nervous, we rarely appear as anxious as we feel.

Try not to put pressure on yourself to get socialising ‘right’, especially if you are feeling out of the loop and out of practice. Be patient with yourself. Making and keeping friends has been pretty challenging this year. New students, in particular, have been very restricted in their opportunities to meet each other and form connections. Be realistic about your starting point, and don’t expect things to change overnight.

Taking your time

It’s ok to take your time to adjust to being more sociable. Just because we are allowed to socialise more, doesn’t mean it’s compulsory. Some people need alone time to recharge and it’s ok to set aside some time for this. It’s helpful for our mood to find a balance of activities, for example those that give us a sense of achievement, pleasure, purpose, closeness to others and self-care. But the balance of these will vary depending on what commitments or academic demands you have at any particular time.

Some people are, understandably, wanting to spend all of their time socialising, and feeling reluctant to do anything else. If fear of missing out is a factor, it can be helpful to talk about this with your friends so that you don’t inadvertently encourage each other to do too much. But in any case, we would suggest that you step back to reflect on the whole picture of what is important to you now. With thoughtful planning, you will be able to find the right balance.