Before the pandemic, Tyrell Brown spent a lot of his free time socializing.
Brown, a 38-year-old teacher living in Queen Village, organized debate watch parties and other events for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2019 and early 2020. After those gatherings, he frequently grabbed drinks with his friends at neighborhood bars. His weekends were full of dinners with friends and birthday parties.
When the lockdown in March 2020 took that away, Brown, a self-described introvert who “loves talking to people,” was surprised by the relief he felt.
“People probably see me in public and think that there’s no way he struggles with social anxiety,” Brown said. “But a lot of people have that experience.”
With social obligations paused, he began engaging in other forms of self-care, such as taking long bubble baths. “I was able to take a breath and just engage with the fact that there was something really big going on,” he said.
In the year since, Brown said, “I catch myself thinking that I wish I could hang out with my friends, but it’s also really comforting that I don’t have to, that I can stay at home.”
While many people felt strain from the dramatic shift in socialization in the last year, scientists predicted that a small group of people, including introverts and those with social anxiety, would adjust well to quarantine and ultimately find that time less stressful. For some people, not being able to socialize the way they used to helped them make new priorities when it came to spending time with others.
One study by researchers at the University of Vermont surveyed 484 college students and found that those who were more extroverted experienced declines in mood over the pandemic, while those who were less extroverted experienced a slight elevation in mood.
And now that restrictions are being lifted, nearly half of all Americans reported feeling uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends, according to a March 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association.
For those who struggle with social anxiety disorder, the pandemic brought some degree of relief, said Steven Tsao, the co-founder of the Center for Anxiety & Behavior Therapy in Bryn Mawr.
“The hallmarks for social disorder include an unreasonable concern of being judged by other people,” Tsao said. “They worry about being seen as strange, awkward, weird, or doing something embarrassing in a social situation. This leads to a lot of focus internally and being very self-evaluative.”
But many people with social anxiety “did not feel cured or remedied in lockdown,” Tsao said.
“It’s still there, but it just came on in different forms,” he said. “While they don’t have to run into awkward interactions with bank tellers or grocery store clerks, now they’re experiencing anxiety about Zoom hangouts or tones of text messages. Social anxiety didn’t disappear for these people.”
Some patients feel more self-conscious from having to look at their own faces on Zoom, said Elizabeth Gordon, a psychologist at the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center of Philadelphia in Center City.
“It’s difficult not to continuously check what [you] look like,” she said. “And people with social anxiety are already prone to feeling that kind of self-consciousness.”
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Even patients who don’t have social anxiety have expressed worries about socializing again, Tsao said. He compared the ability to socialize with others to a muscle that has atrophied for many.
“It’s just something we haven’t done for so long,” he said. “It’s going to take some practice for that muscle to get strong again.”
Gordon said that when she accompanied her child to an outdoor birthday party recently, she noticed that many of the parents were standing around awkwardly.
“It was kind of like we forgot how to socialize,” she said. “We were making jokes about it. It will feel a little more exhausting and anxiety-provoking at first, but once we get back into the swing of things, it will feel a lot different.”
How to readjust to socializing
Taking baby steps can help those who are anxious about socializing again this summer, Tsao said. Put yourself in social situations where you feel more comfortable, such as a small gathering with close friends, instead of going on a blind date.
“Going back to the analogy about the muscle that atrophied, if you’re trying to make it stronger, you wouldn’t start by grabbing the heaviest weight that you can find,” Tsao said. “You would pick up something light.”
Michael Weigand said that even before the pandemic, he often needed to “charge his social battery” before going out with friends. After the pandemic hit, Weigand, who is 39 and works in the service industry, realized that he spent a lot of time “going to bars and talking to people I didn’t like.”
“I feel like my social life is going to be a lot different than it used to be before the pandemic,” Weigand said. “This feeling of having to go do certain things, it’s like, ‘Nah, I don’t. I really don’t.’”
Being involved in restaurants and arts for 25 years meant that there was often a social obligation, Weigand said. “Now I feel different,” he said. “I can just play a video game or get regular sleep. And if I’m hanging out with someone, it’s because I’ve made it a priority to hang out with them.”
Jummy Kirby, a therapist who owns a private practice in Bala Cynwyd, said her clients have found the new autonomy over their schedules “very liberating.”
“My clients are getting to do the things they’ve always wanted to do, like small projects around the house,” Kirby said. “So I’m telling them not to be in a hurry to return to your old life, especially if it’s causing a lot of stress. I tell them to use what they learned during the pandemic, to use what makes them feel good.”
Kirby recommended making an effort to leave the house every day, whether it’s going for a walk or grabbing takeout instead of having it delivered. It can also be helpful to make a plan for how many social events you want to attend in a month, she said.
“That way, when you accomplish it, you’re able to feel good about it,” Kirby said. “It’s important to validate your feelings and not push yourself to go fast. If you’re battling internally, it’s good to tell people you might need more time to do things you’re not used to doing anymore. Understand that your comfort level is different from other people’s comfort levels.”
Balancing socializing and self-care
Jason Peters, 26, a freelance writer and producer based in South Philadelphia, said that the pandemic has sped up the process of people in his age group pulling back from their social lives to focus on relationships and families. Although Peters is an extrovert, he has enjoyed a year of not having to “listen to people say dumb [things].” But in situations where he has had to socialize, he’s noticed a change in how he acts around other people.
“I’ve noticed that in the social interactions I do have, I don’t know what to talk about anymore,” Peters said. “I used to pride myself on having that social muscle in shape, but now it feels like I’m a little out of place. It’s slowly coming back, but there’s definitely anxiety toward social interactions.”
The urge to avoid socializing is common for those who feel social anxiety, Tsao said, but “it’s probably not going to help in the long term.” He encourages his patients to “wait and see what happens instead of trying to fortune-tell what’s going to happen” before they enter a social situation.
“Their brains are telling them the situation is going to be a dumpster fire,” he said. “But after they do it, they realize that it wasn’t that.”
One thing Brown has learned during the pandemic is that he doesn’t have to go to cookouts or house parties hosted by his friends in order to solidify that bond. Instead, he’s realized that he can say no to friends and family members and still see them next time.
“The pandemic has relieved me of the obligation to go out,” Brown said. “I don’t feel the urge to answer people who are calling me on Friday night, asking me where I’m at. Shutdown gave me that valve to express that agency. It’s changed my perspective of what to do with free time in general.”