Managing Anxiety When Navigating Increased Social Demands

 

 

The global pandemic has affected us all in countless ways; causing grief, unemployment, financial hardship, perpetuated systems of racism and oppression, medical crises, our mental health – the list goes on. One of the effects that was not initially identified but has had a significant impact on our wellness is our social stamina when faced with the demands and expectations of a post-lockdown life.

Socially, most of us feel as if we have been on a social rollercoaster of sorts where there have been dramatic shifts from our historical social lives, to complete isolation and lockdown, to now navigating the reintegration process as we continue to form our new “normal.” Adjusting to a post-lockdown life has resulted in an overwhelming surge in social expectations, invitations, and demands. This significant increase accompanied by the reintegration process has influenced the wellness of many, and may contribute to increased mental health concerns, substance use, and domestic violence.

Adjusting and reintegrating has already proven to be overwhelming for most, challenging us in multiple ways mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. Most of us have also lost our social endurance. We were once able to attend many back-to-back meetings, events, and social gatherings; a couple years later and this continues to feel almost impossible and incredibly draining. Knowing how to mindfully navigate these social demands and adjusting to new expectations at your own pace is crucial to protecting your mental health. I recommend you engage in a self-assessment before and during social engagements so that you can feel more empowered to support your wellness throughout the experience.

Below are a few steps you can use to prepare for upcoming social demands.

  1. Assess Readiness

Receiving a text or invitation to a social event can activate social anxiety about attendance. Our minds can become consumed by the distress and discomfort. It can be helpful to break down our anxiety so that we are able to identify what is fueling the distress. With this increased self-awareness, we are better equipped to manage our emotions and maintain our wellness. Asking yourself the following questions can help guide the self-assessment and awareness around your distress so that an informed decision can then be made regarding your attendance:

  • What are the benefits of me attending this event?
  • What are the potential fears and/or concerns about attending this event?
  • What support structures will be there to help me? For example: Who is going that I know and feel comfortable with? Have I been to the venue before and therefore have added familiarity? Do I have transportation options to arrive and leave when I wish?
  1. Identify and Implement Boundaries

You can imagine your boundaries as personal body guards that when present and activated, allow you to safely engage and interact while maintaining your health and wellness. Knowing our boundaries and how to express them, particularly when engaging with others, is crucial for emotional safety and navigating the mindful reintegration process.

  • What are my safe zones? (conversation topics, environments, people you feel comfortable with, time of the day, etc.)
  • What are my non-negotiables? (no-go conversations, people, places, activities, etc. that when activated are your red flags to remove yourself and engage in/with a safe zone)
  • How do I plan to express my boundaries? (create the dialogue needed to express safe zones and non-negotiables so that when the moment presents itself, you know exactly how to articulate yourself and achieve yout emotional needs to support safety).
  1. Ground Yourself

When we experience distress, our responses can trigger thoughts that can feel debilitating and are often fixated on certain aspects of the trigger. Grounding techniques can be highly effective in helping us reset our thoughts into the present moment and as a result manage our distress and discomfort. Grounding techniques are usually step-based guides to help someone who is activated to regain control of their mind and body through breathing, sensation exposures, and thought management practices. Below are a few of the many grounding techniques available to assist an individual who is beginning to feel distressed or feels fully activated.

5-4-3-2-1 technique
This is a thought management practice that challenges you to name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can hear, and 1 thing you can taste in your environment. Engaging with your senses and viewing your environment through a structured lens can help reset your thoughts and ground you in the present moment.

Sensation exposures
These techniques are aimed at intentionally exposing your skin to alternative temperatures and textures. These techniques can be helpful for individuals struggling with past- or future-oriented thoughts triggering distress. Types of sensation exposures include gently rubbing an ice block on your inner wrist, running cold/warm water over your hands, mindfully moisturizing your hands with your favorite scented hand lotion, taking a shower and focusing on the temperature of the water and how it feels as it pours over your body, mindfully touching a softer throw blanket or the grass outside, etc.

4-Square Breathing technique
This guided breathing exercise can help slow your breathing down while redirecting your thoughts to support self-regulation and empowerment when feeling triggered. Pointing with your index finger ahead in front of you and slowly drawing the outline of a square, focus on inhaling as you draw the first side of your square. Exhale when you reach the corner. Repeat this step four times until you have drawn a complete square with all four outline sides resulting in four deep inhales and exhales.

  1. Create Escape Cards

If you are feeling activated and you are unable to self-soothe and instead decide to leave, you may begin to feel anxious about exactly how you are going to remove yourself and what you are going to say. Escape cards can help support you with this and can be described as previously identified reasons as to why you would need to remove yourself from a person, place, or activity. These are to be used when feeling activated and are an essential tool to support symptom management if feeling triggered. Identifying your escape cards beforehand can serve as a self-empowerment tool; walking into a situation knowing you are not “stuck” there and that you can leave enables you to feel more comfortable. Escape cards are also a form of reassuring yourself that your decision to attend an event can evolve and change, meaning you do not have to stay until the end just because you decided to go.

Examples of escape cards include:

  • “I have an early morning tomorrow so I don’t want to stay late”
  • “My pet is still adjusting to me being out after lockdown so I don’t want to be away for too long”
  • “It has been a long week at work and I want to prioritize my sleep so I am going to get going”
  • “I am not feeling too good so I think it is best if I go home”
  • “I have another engagement I need to get to”
  • “It is a bit too loud/busy and I can feel a headache coming on”
  • “I am glad I came but I am going to head out now”

Escape cards can also be for temporary use, meaning you do not necessarily want to leave just yet but you are starting to feel overwhelmed and could do with a break. Examples of temporary escape cards include:

  • “I need to use the restroom”
  • “I need to take this call so I am going to step outside”
  • “My pet needs to go outside for a potty break”
  • “I have a slight headache coming on, I am just going to lie down for a few minutes”
  • “I need to go and put my phone on charge, I’ll be right back”
  1. Identify Your Teammate / Support Squad

If you have decided to attend the event after assessing your readiness and equipping yourself with the tools we explored to support your wellness, the final step is to identify who your teammate or support squad is. This is either a person or a group of people who will also be attending the engagement or are easily reachable via phone and with whom you feel comfortable and safe enough to share your fears/concerns about attending. Knowing that someone/others know what you may need help with can feel very comforting as well and act as a support system. It may even be beneficial to identify a safe word that you could share with your teammate or support squad when feeling activated so that they can be there for you as needed.

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