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April 27, 2021

5 ways to warm up your 'social muscles,' according to experts

Daily Briefing

    As vaccinations pick up and we move closer to a new, post-pandemic normal, many people are experiencing unexpected anxiety at the thought of easing back into society. Here's how experts say people can "strengthen [their] social muscles," Bonnie Tsui writes for the New York Times.

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    'New forms of social anxiety'

    According to experts, many people over the past year have been fairly insular, missing much of the face-to-face contact necessary for social interaction—and that's going to result in "new forms of social anxiety" said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the director of the Social Interaction Lab at the University of California-Berkeley.

    Anxiety around resuming certain social norms, such as gathering for weddings or even crowding on public transportation, may make some people reluctant to even try to engage in such activities, Tsui writes. That's why Debra Kaysen, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said the goal shouldn't be going to back to "normal," but rather "creat[ing] a new normal, one that's functional and beautiful—and different."

    1. Ease back into social interaction

    It's normal for those who've carefully adhered to safety measures adopted during the pandemic to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of fewer precautions, according to Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center. That's why he recommended finding incremental ways of socializing rather than diving back in all at once.

    For instance, Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist in Boston, said people could pick and chose out of "dozens of points of re-entry," such as two vaccinated people hosting each other indoors, taking public transportation once a week, or going to the grocery story more regularly. Other small steps could include sharing a meal with someone, telling a joke face-to-face, reaching out to someone you've fallen out of touch with, asking about what a friend is reading or listening to, or striking up a conversation with a stranger, such as a fellow dog-walker or the cashier. 

    Eventually, using a step-by-step approach, people can work themselves up to attending a wedding or graduation, Hendriksen said.

    2. Don't wait on your anxiety

    Provided the things you'd like to do are considered safe or low-risk, Hendriksen said you shouldn't wait until you're anxiety-free to take that first step. "Feeling anxious doesn't mean you're in danger, doesn't mean something is wrong," she said—rather, it's just a normal part of a post-pandemic normal.

    "In order to live in the world, you need to be able to tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and a certain amount of risk," said Lina Perl, a clinical psychologist in New York City. She added that when you do a new activity, "[i]t can be very uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the less power it has over you."

    3. The 'new normal' doesn't have to replicate the old normal

    According to experts, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been a reckoning with old, pre-pandemic habits that were draining, such as an overscheduled social calendar or commuting to work every day—habits we may not necessarily need to resume.

    Similarly, experts said people may wish to hold on to some of the current public health recommendations if it helps ease their anxiety, such as frequently washing hands or wearing a mask during the winter months. No matter how people proceed, however, Perl said people should avoid comparing their behaviors to the behaviors of others, as that just "creates more of an anxious churn."

    4. Let go of resentment

    Relatedly, experts also advised people to let go of any anger or resentment they may feel toward people who don't follow recommended health guidelines.

    Rather than thinking, "Those people should be wearing a mask right now," think, "I wish those people were wearing a mask," Hendriksen said, noting that the latter statement can help people regulate emotional reactions.

    5. Focus on activities that ease anxiety

    According to experts, now's the time to prioritize physical aspects of health—such as regular exercise and healthy eating habits—that people may have neglected during the pandemic, since these activities can help ease anxiety.

    Citing the benefits of biking, walking, and other exercise, John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said, "[Y]ou elevate the concentration of all these good neurotransmitters and neurohormones that we have that help us feel better, feel calmer, feel less anxious."

    Ratey recommended logging a few minutes of exercise to "increase your resilience and your ability to take challenges like going out without a mask or visiting your kids or your grandkids when everybody has the vaccine," though he acknowledged that "it's going to a transition period, for sure" (Caron, New York Times, 4/22; Tsui, New York Times, 4/8).

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