How to Cope With Social Awkwardness After COVID-19

How to cope with social awkwardness after COVID-19 pandemic

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of vaccinations rolling out across the U.S. and restrictions starting to lift, many people are not only wondering, “How soon can life get back to normal?” They are also thinking “What if I don’t have the social skills anymore to deal with things that used to be easy?” 

Those who were already felt socially awkward before the pandemic, such as people with social anxiety, may be stuck in a fight-or-flight response. Life has been a comfortable bubble tucked away in an isolated cocoon for over a year, but that bubble is about to burst. The thought can be terrifying for some. 

For both groups, the common questions include:

  • How do we re-learn how to talk to people and manage the social awkwardness that may result from a year of isolation? 
  • What can we do to practice social skills, feel more comfortable, and actually enjoy social situations again?
  • How can we cope in healthy ways with the anxiety that is going to be inevitable as we go back to “normal” life? 

Effects of Isolation

Research with isolated populations such as soldiers, astronauts, and prisoners tells us that social skills can atrophy just like muscles that are not used. If you are isolated from other people for an extended period of time, you will end up feeling awkward, socially anxious, and unable to tolerate what used to feel mundane. 

This isn’t a mental disorder; rather, it’s a collective experience of those who are isolated and it’s happening to everyone who has had a decreased level of social contact due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Evolution has created a need for social contact in humans because it helps us to survive, much like our need for food and water. Without the support of social systems in ancient times, most individuals would fall prey to the elements, predators, etc. 

Although things are not quite the same in modern times, most people still have a biological instinct to affiliate with a social network. Even the most socially anxious or introverted person probably wants to have social contact even though it can be hard at times. 

This means that when we are denied our social needs, it can lead to consequences in terms of our mental, emotional and physical health.

This can be true even if you have been isolated in the company of family members or another close-knit group. You aren’t experiencing the social network that you may have had previously, such as seeing people at the gym, talking with coworkers, or making random small talk with strangers. 

This loneliness translates into real effects: feeling angry, tired, irritable, or sad. Even if you don’t consciously acknowledge that you are “lonely,” these other emotional reactions can be signs that you’ve been isolated for too long.  

Signs of Social Awkwardness

Are you unsure whether you have developed social awkwardness because it’s simply been so long since you have been around people? These potential signs of social awkwardness are particularly relevant after being isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

  • Not being able to understand subtle aspects of social situations or how to behave
  • Feeling like you have become oversensitive or hypervigilant
  • Overreacting to things that do not seem to bother others
  • Doing things that seem inappropriate (e.g., oversharing during a conversation)
  • Wanting to be around other people but then finding it hard when you actually do spend time with them
  • Misinterpreting the intentions of others (e.g., thinking someone dislikes you or is angry at you because of the expression on their face)
  • Feeling more self-conscious than usual
  • Avoiding things that you used to enjoy such as phone calls or meeting up for activities
  • Making excuses for doing things such as saying that you are too tired
  • Choosing solitary activities over social activities (e.g., choosing to watch Netflix instead of answering a phone call from a friend) 

How to Practice Social Skills

If you are concerned that your social skills have deteriorated permanently, take heart. Just because things are hard right now doesn’t mean that they will feel this way forever.

This contrasts with the pain of social interaction previously felt by those with social anxiety who felt as though they were a fish out of water; that everyone else had this thing figured out that seemed close to impossible for them. 

The good news is that many people are experiencing the exact same things as you right now. That means that our social awkwardness is a collective experience we can relate to and commiserate with as we are going through it together.

The truth is that some people will fare better as they re-enter society than others. What are the determining factors that determine who will get back their social butterfly wings (or grow them if you never had them) and who will flounder, fail, and feel absolutely foolish? 

If you are concerned about practicing your social skills, you might try to:

  • Maintain communication with other people even if it feels awkward (e.g., block out time each day to write an email, make a phone call)
  • Embrace being awkward instead of fighting against it by mentioning the elephant in the room
  • Make jokes about the situation (e.g., during a conversation at the water cooler, say something like “long time no see” as a joke)
  • Practice your listening skills by asking open-ended questions and paying attention to what is said
  • Start out with situations that feel safer to you (e.g., people you used to know well)
  • Practice for a limited amount of time at first (e.g., don’t throw yourself into a weekend getaway with a group of strangers at first)
  • Make being friendly the most important thing, since everyone is feeling some degree of awkwardness and could use your support and lightheartedness 

How to Practice Compassion

As you prepare to re-enter society and practice your social skills, it is also important to keep in mind the value of self-compassion and compassion toward others.

Most people are likely feeling at least a little bit of anxiety at the thought of returning to normal life, so it’s important to treat everyone kindly and offer a bit more leeway than you normally would if someone doesn’t behave as you would expect them to.

At the same time, it’s also important to show yourself the same compassion. If you’re unsure how to do so, these tips can help you get started. 

  • Realize that your social limits may have shifted (e.g., you might not be able to tolerate weeklong houseguests, whereas in the past it would not have bothered you)
  • Acknowledge that it’s OK to not have enough social energy for what you need to do and take breaks
  • Realize that some aspects of your old life might not have been ideal and it’s OK to let them go (e.g., socializing with people who made you feel drained)
  • Avoid taking on too many social tasks all at once since your ability to manage them has been reduced
  • Set boundaries with other people to let them know what you can handle
  • Don’t make assumptions about what other people feel comfortable with
  • Have empathy for yourself and other people if things are awkward at first 

When COVID Concerns Make Things Awkward

Beyond our social skills getting a little rusty, there is also the problem that safety concerns have also made social interactions more awkward than they used to be.

What do you do when a stranger goes in for a handshake and you are still not quite comfortable with physical contact yet? Or what about when you’re invited to a gathering and you don’t know who has been vaccinated or who hasn’t? Or what about navigating the political minefield of whether masks are still important or if events should be held at all? 

In general, there is an overarching question hanging in the air: How are we supposed to act now? If this is one of the reasons for your newfound social awkwardness, below are some tips to help you navigate the problems that can arise due to social distancing anxiety and concerns. 

  • Make a point of having conversations about social distancing even if they feel awkward. It’s better to understand what will go on at an event than to arrive and be surprised that other people are handling things differently than you.
  • Realize that because of the pandemic, some of your previous social routines may be permanently changed. Be sure to communicate this to other people so that they can understand. For example, if you prefer Zoom over in-person meetups because of logistical reasons, it’s fine to make this known. COVID has changed many of our social norms and there’s no reason to go back to the old way if the new way is actually working better.
  • Make suggestions or negotiate when you don’t feel comfortable. It’s been a tumultuous year and many people have ended up feeling divided based on their political opinions or beliefs about social distancing. If someone holds different views than you, offer to compromise instead of reacting in a negative way. Make suggestions that you feel comfortable with to see if you can reach an agreement. 

Managing Anxiety Due to Social Awkwardness

If you are feeling a bit (or a lot) of social anxiety because of your social awkwardness, that feeling is completely normal and will probably go away the more you integrate back into society. However, if you find that your social anxiety is not going away and it’s only getting worse, then it could be that you have developed a deeper mental health concern.

Below are some suggestions to deal with newfound or worsening social anxiety due to the perception that you have become socially awkward. 

  • If you are avoiding and experiencing severe anxiety that is impacting your daily life, you probably should seek the help of a professional.
  • Mild or moderate social anxiety may be improved by gradually facing the things that are causing you anxiety until you feel more comfortable again.
  • Practice coping strategies for when you get into difficult situations, such as deep breathing, repeating positive affirmations or coping statements, or setting a time limit before you will excuse yourself.
  • Meditation and mindfulness can help if you find that your problem is mostly one of worry that carries you away and makes it hard to think of anything else.
  • Journaling can be a good way to get at the underlying emotions or triggers as you go about your day. Each day, free-write about how you felt and how things went. Look for patterns in your thoughts and feelings and try to identify triggers that make you feel worse so you can prepare to cope with them the next time you encounter them. 

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can build mental strength after the pandemic.

A Word From Verywell

If social distancing and isolation has left you feeling socially awkward and with poor social skills, it’s important to realize that you are not alone. In fact, never in history has there been a better time to work on improving your social skills—pretty much everyone is experiencing the same thing!

This means we can all expect more compassion and understanding than may have previously been the case. In particular, if you already had social anxiety pre-pandemic, then this is a good time to work on improving the social skills that you may have felt you never had.

Finally, be sure to show yourself a lot of compassion because you are dealing with a lot of unknowns. Interacting with people has a whole new layer of confusion because of social distancing protocols, so it is natural that there will be awkward moments. Embrace them for what they are and try not to get stuck on them. Doing so will help you to progress instead of taking a step backward.

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