The pandemic is far from over, but with vaccination rates steadily climbing, in-person social events are on the menu for the first time in what feels like 600 years. It’s hard to know how to feel about that: On the one hand, Zoom is bad and parties rule. On the other, nonstop social engagements are a great way to burn out or get the coronavirus.
How the hell are we supposed to handle this? We’ve spent the last year-plus talking to our computers while concepts like “work-life balance” and “time” gradually lost all meaning. (And that was if things were good.) Now we’re supposed to remember how to act around people and avoid the deadly airborne virus? It’s a lot to process, so I asked Dr. Erin Berman, MS, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the National Institute of Mental Health, how to deal.
Acknowledge that this is weird and hard
According to Dr. Berman, feeling a little freaked out right now is to be expected: “We’re kind of going from nothing to everything, or it’s gonna feel that way to our bodies,” she tells me. “[The pandemic has been] going on for so long that some amount of anxiety, fear, stress, [or] whatever [your] personal reaction is—it’s normal.”
A sudden switch from video chat to in-person hangouts isn’t just a massive routine disruption. It also requires a different set of social skills because Zoom isn’t real life. “Understanding when to speak and when to listen is a practiced habitual response,” Dr. Berman explains. “If you’ve only been practicing it via Zoom—which is its own level of stress, but it’s different than in-person interactions—[you’re] probably out of practice.”
On top of all that, there are lots of good reasons to fear in-person social contact right now. Vaccines are preventing the vast majority of serious cases, including hospitalizations and deaths—but vaccinated people can and do transmit the new, ultra-contagious delta variant. It’s all very fraught, and it all seems to be happening at once.
How to keep up without over- or under-doing it
Dr. Berman emphasizes that easing back into your social life is the single best way to adjust without losing your mind. “It’s really important that we don’t make [socializing] all or nothing, because that’s when anxiety breeds in an excessive and irrational way,” she says.
But everyone’s version of “easing into it” looks a little different. Your specific strategy depends on how you’re already handling things: Are you saying yes to everything, or are you saying no to everything?
If you’re saying “Yes” too much
When you accept every invitation you’re offered, even friendly texts and emails start to feel like threats. “If you’re constantly available, you’re not creating boundaries—[so] you’re constantly on guard, in a way,” Dr. Berman says. Here are her tips for avoiding burnout.
Take care of the basics first: Above all else, you need to make sure you’re meeting your basic human needs. “[Ask yourself:] ‘Am I sleeping OK? Am I eating OK? Am I getting my time to be alone that I need? Am I getting to the gym or walking around? Am I talking to my family?’” Dr. Berman says. If your social life is cutting into any of these, it’s time to step back.
Make a schedule and stick to it: Forcing yourself back into a routine will help things feel normal again, so look at your calendar and see where you can carve out some time. Don’t just set aside, for example, one afternoon or evening per week for actual socializing—schedule an hour just for managing your calendar, too. Keep checking in with yourself: If it feels like too much (or not enough), adjust accordingly.
Keep rejections clear and concise: When turning someone down, Dr. Berman specifically recommends not assigning blame, over-apologizing, and using what she calls “judgement words.” “Just the facts, ma’am,” she says. Instead of leading with “It’s been so hard for me to keep up with my schedule,” describe whatever’s preventing you from accepting the invitation; if your kid has a soccer tournament that weekend, say so, give your regrets, and move on.
If you’re saying “No” too much
Going too hard in the other direction is just as harmful. We can’t stay holed up in our sweats forever, and pretending otherwise probably isn’t great for your mental health. If you’re rejecting every invitation that comes your way, Dr. Berman recommends asking yourself what you’re really scared of. But anyone with anxiety knows that answering that question isn’t always as easy as it sounds. These tips should help.
Check in on your feelings: If your anxiety is through the roof, pay close attention to your physical symptoms (sweaty palms, racing heart, jaw clenching, or extra tension in your neck and shoulders). “One way to counteract [these symptoms] is to go do something physical, [which helps] you relax,” Dr. Berman explains. In other words, take a walk around the block or do some pushups before responding to an invite that’s stressing you out.
Imagine the worst-case scenario—then fact-check it: Running through the absolute worst version of an event will help you identify what you’re truly worried about so you can assess how likely it is to happen. If going to an indoor concert makes you nervous because you have unvaccinated kids at home, fair enough. But if you’re convinced that your rusty social skills will make your best friend hate you, maybe think twice before turning down their dinner invitation.
Get more information: According to Dr. Berman, asking basic logistical questions is another great technique for identifying the source of your anxiety. Where’s the event? Who else is going? Indoors or out? How are we getting to and from? What are the mask requirements? You may feel like your own overbearing parent, but you’ll get the information you need to make your choice.
If this is all sounding like super basic stuff, it is. The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the way we interact with each other; going back to “normal” will take practice. In the meantime, it’s OK to feel anxious or lost. Just take it easy and pay attention to how you’re feeling—you’ll figure out what works for you.