Lockdown’s over… so why am I feeling socially awks?

After almost two years of limited social contact, why are we feeling tentative now life is opening up again? Here’s how to rediscover your social fitness.

Following almost two years marred by lockdowns, restrictions and endless uncertainty, for many one noticeable casualty has been the loss of their social fitness.

As hints of life return to our social network, you might think we’d be jumping into post-lockdown celebrations.

But it doesn’t work that way, says psychologist and personal coach Marny Lishman.

“While people have really missed their friends and colleagues, it’s almost like we get rewired and adapt, so then coming back out into the world is another disruption,” Marny says.

Headspace App mental health expert Mary Spillane agrees.

“We’ve all been very understimulated,” Mary says.

“We’ve been seeing the same people over the past 18 months, there’s been little or no interacting in busy spaces, so we’re out of practice.”

“Getting back into life is like having to use a muscle we haven’t used for a long time — people are nervous about interacting face-to-face again.”

How Covid-19 challenged our social fitness

Researchers have found while we’ve all experienced the pandemic differently, there’s been a population-level deterioration in mental health in Australia.

“People are feeling exhausted on the back of a very tough 18 months, their psychological baseline is really low,” Mary explains.

“Even those not familiar with social anxiety are reporting feeling anxious and nervous about the thought of socialising again.”

For those who already experience social phobia, getting back into the community can be even more overwhelming, while for many health fears around the pandemic still linger, says Marny.

“I’ve had clients who say that despite the loneliness in lockdown, there was a certain feeling of safety in being confined to home where they felt safe from the virus,” she says.

How to regain your social fitness

Our experts offered these tips to get socially fit again.

Signs you’re feeling anti-social

Self-awareness is important says Marny.

“Notice if you’re automatically saying no to things and how you feel when you’re supposed to be going out, whether anxiety creeps in,” she says.

Signs to look out for can include fatigue, irritability, apprehension, having difficulty concentrating and even nausea and a rapid heartbeat.

“Then have a think about who you really are,” Marny says.

“Are you actually a social person?

“Work out what level of interaction you need to be your best self.”

Social fitness in small steps

“What we know about anxiety is it’s fuelled by avoidance, so don’t shut down and avoid every invitation — think in small steps and go at your own pace,” Mary says.

“Rather than a big group, catch up with one friend at a time and gradually build up to meeting up in a twos or threes.

“When it comes to work, speak to your employer about a flexible return and perhaps buddy up and go in with a colleague, someone you’re friends with.”

How self-care helps social fitness

Mindfulness is also a valuable tool in helping our social fitness, according to Marny, including meditation, healthy eating and, ideally, minimal alcohol.

“Have a short return to work meditation that you can do in five or 10 minutes,” Marny suggests.

“What typically happens when we get anxious is we start to judge our own anxiety and then we have all of this secondary emotion.

“Mindfulness helps to reduce some of that emotional reaction, as well as aiding sleep and concentration and your general feeling of wellbeing, so that you feel more relaxed.”

Ways to help kids regain social fitness

Mary recommends allowing kids to rebuild their social fitness slowly.

“Your child might not settle back into the things they used to do like play groups or school or sport straight away, so allow time for things to play out and acknowledge any concerns they may have,” she says.

Marny says it’s important to avoid projecting your own fears onto your kids.

“All they really want is to feel safe and loved and supported,” she says.

“They’ll be back into their activities before you know it, kids are very resilient.”

Written by Liz McGrath.