For the past year or more, a lot of us have been itching to be able to leave our homes, socialize with loved ones, travel, and many other activities that used to be a part of our norm. Now, with COVID-related deaths decreasing and access to the vaccine increasing, the world is starting to open back up again. You are likely facing invitations and opportunities that six months ago you felt like you were begging for. But now, you might feel a sense of dread and anxiety when you think about socially reintegrating to the world. Why?
We adapt to our circumstances.
A few of my clients have recently said, “But I don’t get it. I used to love going to a crowded beach in the summer, and now I feel panic at the thought of leaving my house.” Or, “I miss my friends and family so much, but the thought of going to a party makes me really anxious.” We have gotten used to living a life of more predictable, narrow opportunities. While that has brought about feelings of loneliness and isolation, it has also unintentionally caused us to feel some sense of control over our day to day. Even when the pandemic felt out of control, our daily routines and lives became less variable. We became used to knowing and controlling what a typical Saturday looked like, how we spent our off time, and when our zoom calls started and ended.
We want to maintain our perception of control.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, we look at the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We cannot control the thoughts that pop into our head or how we automatically feel, but we can control our actions. That awareness and control does not extend to others. We cannot read other people’s minds, predict what they will do or say, or control how they feel towards us. Going to a party means introducing a set of variables that we are not used to mentally facing. It might bring about more, “What if…” type of questions and leave us feeling self-conscious about how we are perceived.
We underestimate our ability to tolerate uncertainty.
“I won’t be able to handle it,” is the most common thought that prevents us from taking risks. Avoidance perpetuates anxiety. It might seem overwhelming to think about going to a large family BBQ or an in person networking event, and that’s okay. The first step is being self-compassionate and acknowledging why your anxiety is higher now than it was in the past. The second step is to set healthy boundaries and not feel obligated to do what you are not yet ready for. You do not need to supply an elaborate excuse to decline a social invitation. The third, and most important, step is to start reintegrating in small ways where you feel a sense of control. Perhaps you meet a friend for coffee, have one or two people over, or agree to stop by a social event for a shorter period of time. Feeling stuck? Make a list of things you’ve done over the past ten years that you once could not or did not think you could do. Maybe it was driving a car, graduating from school, being a parent, changing careers, or something else. Remind yourself that change is possible.
The more we practice going into situations where we do not know what will happen next, the less we dread them. A lot of our fears about “what if” get dispelled through experiences, and we learn that we can handle difficult things. Let your values guide your behaviors, not fear. – Elian