Of all the things the coronavirus pandemic has taken from us, losing our ability to smoothly make small talk with people we barely know is certainly one of the more minor grievances. Still, we can't discount the toll that months upon months of isolation and limited interactions beyond our respective bubbles have taken on both our collective mental health and social skills. So many of the everyday casual conversations we once took for granted — catching up with co-workers, breezily chatting up a cashier, meeting friends for drinks or book club — have fallen away, or been conducted from at least six feet of distance and/or a face mask. Anyone who freezes when a friend calls rather than texts is all too familiar with the bolt of anxiety and verbal diarrhea that now rushes forth when a stranger strikes up a conversation or a party invitation arrives.
Because, yes, parties and gatherings are happening this holiday season. While COVID-19 cases are rising in some areas, access to vaccines and relaxed travel restrictions — and, of course, an overwhelming eagerness to return to life as we once knew it — have paved the way for more socialization, from traditional turkey dinners reuniting loved ones to holiday mixers involving friends old, new and yet-to-be introduced. It's exciting, but as psychologist Jenny Seham points out, it can also raise expectations and trigger anxiety in those for whom in-person interactions have been few and far between over the past year and a half.
"Everyone's feeling rusty, everyone's feeling awkward, everyone's feeling stressed and anxious," Seham, attending psychologist and director of Arts and Integrative Medicine at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.
Seham herself has observed an uptick in cases of social anxiety recently. While she notes that the holidays already tend to be a stressful time regardless of a global health crisis further complicating matters, the ongoing pandemic has no doubt contributed to people experiencing "awkwardness" around socializing — a feeling akin to "I'm not sure how to do this anymore," she says.
For anyone needing to refresh their social skills ahead of a holiday gathering — Friendsgiving, your neighbor's (almost) annual cocktail party — Seham has devised an acronym system to help guide people through social jitters: "GLAD." The "G," she explains, is to "go slow and at your own pace," which includes resisting pressure from others and setting boundaries that make you feel more comfortable.
"If you're ready to go to a restaurant, do it — but not because everybody says you should," she says. "[Do it] because that's your pace; that's what you want to do. It's really important these days to say, 'Well, I'm really ready to see my family. I really want to have this Thanksgiving dinner and there's some people I want to see, [but[ I want it to be small; that's important to me.' Or, 'I want to go on this date [but] I want to be careful and I want to wear a mask.'"
The "L" in "GLAD" really "speaks to this awkwardness, this hesitation, this verbal diarrhea" people are feeling, Seham says.
"Laugh about it, or allow yourself to be lighthearted," she advises. "And know you're not alone. It's not strange. This is exceptionally a time where you can be sure that everybody is going through some aspect of this because everybody needed to be in isolation in one way or the other. So you can even laugh about it, like, 'I feel like a middle-school kid now. I feel like I'm back in sixth grade.'"
The next step is "A," or to "just acknowledge the weirdness" of this unusual situation and the uncertainty surrounding it.
"Acknowledge that there's an opportunity this holiday, that can see some friends and go out a little bit more and feel safe, and it's weird and it's strange," Seham says. "And again, to say, 'I didn't go through this pandemic alone — everyone went through this. Truly, others understand; there are other things in our lives that other people may not understand, but people do understand this."
Finally, there's "D," which stands for "do things." According to Seham, getting out of your head can help.
"When you're talking about anxiety, when you're talking about worrying, sometimes we have thoughts, like, 'I sound stupid, I don't know what to say,'" she notes. "We can often get carried away with those worry thoughts, and so one of the best ways to really manage that is to go and do something, instead of resting in the worry thoughts. Do it anyway. Even though we're like, 'Oh, I may feel stupid and I may look awkward,' do it anyway."
That "something" doesn't have to be as full-on as hitting up a party or bustling bar. It could mean working up to those things by going for a run or meeting up with a smaller group for a catch-up. Seham notes that breathing exercises can also help dial down anxious feelings, as can managing expectations.
"Get it out of your head that something's going to be perfect," she says. "[Being] perfect or [thinking] 'It should be like this' is really the goblin or nemesis of anxiety — feeling like, 'I should be better at this,' or, 'I need to be perfect,' or 'I need to say exactly the right thing.' Acknowledge that no, you might not say the right thing and that's OK... Notice your thoughts. Don't try and just tamp them down...
"Know that something may be awkward, something may be difficult, and you will survive," she adds. "What we have been through together is something that's really difficult. And so we can survive the party, the wedding — we can get through it."
Seham says exposure is vital to working through anxiety, but if a situation feels overwhelming — for example, you've been at a party for an hour and still can't shake your nerves — "give yourself permission to leave." And if you come home from an event convinced that you embarrassed yourself somehow, it's time to, she says, "fire your inner critic." Instead, have at least one point person — a spouse, a best friend — that you can check in with for support and a sounding board to work through those feelings.
The road to being a social butterfly — or even someone who no longer considers small talk unbearable — may not be smooth, but it is one worth embarking on. Whether it's in the form of a big holiday gathering or a more modest dinner out, socialization is vital, says Seham.
"I really want to encourage that people do interact; we need to be with each other," says Seham. "Part of human nature and our mental health is connection. Yeah, it's awkward. It feels funny. Do it anyway."
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