Why It’s OK To Feel Socially Anxious (And How To Turn It Into An “Opportunity Mindset”)
Illustration by Ms Giovanna Giuliano
We all know the feeling. You’re about to turn the handle on the conference room door. The murmur of voices on the other side is punctuated with laughter like the sharp clink of wine glasses. You’re meeting new people and they sound like they all know each other. You have no doubt that the moment you walk through the door their merriment will cease and their eyes will turn towards you, a stranger.
This moment could describe a dozen similar real-life scenes from, pre-Covid-19, introducing yourself to a bunch of new clients or going on a first date, to, post-Covid-19, joining a busy Zoom call or meeting friends in a bar for the first time in six months.
Your heart is racing, your hands feel clammy and your breathing is shallow. These are all physical signs of anxiety. The surge of panicky thoughts of escape are like a frantic pinball in your head. Rest assured, this is all perfectly normal, albeit hard to handle.
For some of us during this strange year, these moments can feel even trickier to control because, since the onset of the coronavirus, we are also managing our increased nervousness about being around others.
“It’s understandable the pandemic and lack of social connection is causing significant stress and psychological distress for a large proportion of the population,” says Dr Maurizio Fava, psychiatrist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital. “And we know the rates are increasing.”
The psychiatrist’s words were in my mind during a client session a few weeks back.
“I wasn’t sure where to look or what to do with my hands in greeting,” said Steve, a coaching client recalling seeing his boss for the first time after returning to his newly reopened office.
“So how did you end up greeting each other?” I asked him.
“My boss looked like he wanted to hug me, which was lovely, but it also made me really uncomfortable. I just don’t want to get sick. So I proffered my elbow instead, which he ignored so that meant I nearly jabbed him in the ribs! It was funny, but also really awkward, which is why we both immediately ducked behind our computer screens for the rest of the morning.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes social anxiety as the fear of being judged, criticised or rejected by others. It’s a definition that accurately describes the anxiety caused by being near others when our own and their health could be at risk. Paradoxically, at a time when making and maintaining connections is paramount for mental health, a physical greeting is also a moment of maximum mutual health hazard.
I asked Steve if he could recognise the awkwardness he felt was mirrored in his boss’ discomfort. “We’re all in this together,” I said as a way of consoling his worry he’d offended his manager. I explained how we’re each trying to navigate a shifting set of socially acceptable rules as well as finding ways of interacting that feel both safe and meaningful at this difficult time.
“It’s understandable the pandemic and lack of social connection is causing significant stress and psychological distress for a large proportion of the population”
It should hardly be a surprise so many of us are feeling socially anxious, perhaps for the first time in our lives.
I asked Steve how he might have reacted differently when his boss reached out to hug him.
“I guess I could have said something like, ‘not so fast, mate!’ and turned it into a bit of a joke,” he said with a smile.
“That’s great,” I said. Sharing a joke about social awkwardness takes the sting out of the moment. It also offers us the opportunity to explain, politely, how we would prefer to greet each other by, say, fist bumping or tapping elbows, which are less risky than hugging or shaking hands.
I also shared with Steve how this idea sits well with research by Dr Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, who suggests telling ourselves our worries are in fact excitement in disguise. It’s not so much “keep calm and carry on” when facing an anxiety-inducing situation as, “get pumped up and thrive!”
“Just saying ‘I’m excited!’ out loud before a challenging situation can do wonders”
According to Dr Wood Brooks, our anxious thoughts trigger similar physiological symptoms to fear. Telling ourselves we’re experiencing excitement instead, shifts our headspace towards what she calls an “opportunity mindset”, rather than the “threat mindset”. Just saying “I’m excited!” out loud before a challenging situation can do wonders. From performing better at exams to feeling calmer around others, the simple technique has been proven in multiple experiments to lead to better outcomes.
“Any other ideas?” I asked Steve.
He told me how an email had been sent around his office a couple of days after he’d had the encounter with his boss from the head of HR. The email shared new safety protocols including how staff should greet each other.
“The thing is, the email suggests no touching whatsoever, rather we should merely nod at each other as a greeting,” said Steve. “I have to say it makes things so much easier. If only they’d shared it a few days earlier I could have avoided my embarrassing elbow bump.”
Walking into any meeting today, it’s comforting to know you can turn the awkwardness of an attempted hug into a moment of fun. There’s no better way to induce feelings of calm than having something to laugh about together.