How to be social again: a guide to reducing anxiety as the world opens up
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, clinical psychologist Linda Blair gives us 5 tips to navigate the new normal
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The world is changing fast. With the increased rollout of the vaccine in many parts of the world, socialising is back on the cards. But it’s been a long time, and for some of us the oncoming change is a cause for anxiety. To help us find a way through, we consulted Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist with 45 years of experience. She trained at Harvard, is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and writes a highly regarded weekly column, Mind Healing, for the Daily Telegraph.
“Longterm isolation is completely non-survival for humans. Humans are not very fearsome creatures. In comparison to other creatures we're, in fact, very weak. We don't have talons or fangs or those means of protection. We protect ourselves, from an evolutionary point of view, by working together.
So, it is a basic part of humanity for people to want to be with one another. Yes, there are introverts or extroverts but fundamentally we all have some need for other people. But we have been denied this interaction for so long during the pandemic. The effect of this is to make us anxious, or depressed or less self-confident.
But what makes this more complicated is that we have also developed new habits. So, we've got this set of habits now which are automatic: we avoid people and we stay inside. But now, with things opening up again, we have to break those habits. And make new ones.
But there’s also another issue – we’re not going back to anything we knew. Life has changed. We're facing yet more uncertainty, which is the one thing the cortex in the front part of our brain hates above all things. It's there to plan. And when you can't plan, you begin by getting anxious and panic follows. So, to avoid that, you need to have techniques in place.
Here are five tips to help you through the next few months.
Recognise things have changed
Number one is not to expect things to be as they were. You have got to expect a new and exciting world. This is the most important thing to recognise at this time. Be aware that you aren’t going to be able to immediately pick up where you left off.
A year ago, you would never have believed you could have done what you have done and got through this. I recommend to my patients that they congratulate themselves in the mirror in the morning. When you're shaving, say out loud: well done. Because it is well done. It is awesome. It boosts self-confidence and lowers cortisol levels when you are proud of yourself.
Take a social media break
Comparing yourself to people on social media is not good. It's usually not even a true representation of reality. And it just makes you feel like you have to do things that you may not be ready for in terms of socialising and so on. We are all personally unique, comparisons aren’t helpful.
Set measurable goals
Imagine a goal you'd like: say, you’d like to be able to go to the pub with your friends. And then make it a measurable, set goal. So you say: I'd like to be able to go with two friends to the pub and stay in that pub garden for half an hour. These are the important first steps – and it’s important that you give yourself a chance at succeeding with small goals first.
The Best Friend Rule
Step five is about refinement. When we ask things of ourselves, we usually push ourselves way too hard and we're very self-critical. So, I give the example of a best friend: you don’t ask excessive amounts of your best friend. So, when you try and push yourself too hard – to attend a large social gathering for instance, pause and think: “would I ask this of my best friend?” and if the answer is no, then don’t ask it of yourself. You may never want to plunge into large-scale social occasions ever again. It is all a new adventure, so just take small baby steps.”