The last year has been all about adjustments: adjusting to life in lockdown and feelings of social isolation, then getting back out there, before adjusting once again to another two lockdowns.

Now, with the lifting of restrictions slowly easing us back to normality, we are once again facing a period of adjustment as we begin to reconnect with our social groups and wider family and friends.

For some of us, the thought of finally having a night out is exciting. But for others, it fills us with dread and fear – having been quite content with staying in every evening and watching boxsets in our pyjamas.

It’s important to remember, however, that social connection is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing. So, although we may feel apprehensive or anxious about having more social contact with people, we need to try and face this fear and find the right level of socialising that works for us. This will be better for our health in the long run.

To support us in getting back into the world of socialising, and to mark Mental Health Awareness Week from 10 to 16 May 2021, here are five tips to consider:

Be kind to yourself

It’s not easy having to readjust to a new way of being again. It’s only to be expected that we will experience an array of different and often contrasting feelings as we start to re-engage socially. This is okay and to be expected.

Our feelings may change from day to day and even hour to hour.  Again, this is okay and to be expected. We are adjusting to a big change in our lives and need to be gentle with ourselves.

Gradual Exposure

Moving from a degree of social isolation to suddenly having more social engagements needs to be done gradually, so we do not become overwhelmed.

Imagine trying to get into the sea (in Britain!) for a swim. It’s easier to do this gradually, inching forward and allowing your body time to adjust to the temperature before moving further in. We need to follow the same principle for increasing our social engagements.

Consider what is least challenging for you socially and what is most challenging – then write yourself a list of engagements according to how challenging you find them.

Now, start with the least challenging activity and then slowly work your way through the list.

You can differentiate social engagements into different categories too, for example, indoor and outdoor activities, those involving a focus – such as a walk – and those that involve sitting with another person, while taking into account the number of people or the length of time.

The overall aim is to gradually increase your social engagement. Try setting yourself goals for the week that are realistic, and you are likely to achieve.

Avoid bailing out of a social event you have planned – this only reinforces our fear. It’s better to plan small goals that we can do, so we are reinforcing that we are in control and can do this.

So, if having lunch with a friend feels too much, consider a coffee or a walk, or even start with a short chat on the phone or some text exchanges first.

Manage feelings of anxiety

It is very possible that we may feel nervous or anxious as we start to engage socially again. Remember that this is normal and to be expected.

Sometimes we are tempted to bail out of a social activity we have planned just to relieve ourselves of the anxious feelings. This only works in the short-term.

Long-term, you are reinforcing to yourself that the activity was too much, and it was right to be fearful. This will make it harder to do try to do the activity next time.

Instead, we need to use different techniques to help us sit with the feelings of anxiety and do the activity anyway. Try some of the following:

  • Breathe: practise some deep breaths in counting to 4, holding for 4, exhaling for 4 and pausing for 4.
  • Distract yourself: try listening to music, an audio book or deliberately thinking about something else. Simple tools are to count down from five, count five blue objects you can see around you or name five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell and one you can taste.
  • Tell someone how you feel: nothing defuses anxiety like exposing it!
  • Focus on your body: try focussing on the sensations you notice in your body, move your body, stretch, tense or rub your body and focus on the sensations there.
  • Repeat mantras: Have some mantras ready in your head that you can repeat when you are feeling anxious, for example ‘I’m feeling the fear, but I’m gonna do it anyway’, or focus on a goal, for example, ‘my son is going to be so impressed when I meet him at that café’.
Plan and Prepare

Nothing feeds anxiety like uncertainty, so planning and preparing for a social engagement again can help.

Some of us will be out of practice with the social conventions of meeting up again, so having some ideas of questions to ask or topics for conversation starters can really help. These will depend on who you are meeting, but they are best if they’re open-ended questions that will encourage sharing, for example, ‘How have you found the two lockdowns?’

It can sometimes be less daunting to have an activity to do, which can take the pressure off making conversation. Going for a walk or swim, bringing a child or a dog along, or sharing a cake you’ve made.

Take the time to consider what would work best for you, would it be easier for you to host or would you prefer the freedom of visiting so you can leave when you are ready? Would tea and cake in the morning or afternoon be easier than a lunch or dinner?

Focus on others

One of the downsides of not being able to socialise or be part of our usual groups over lockdown is that we can become insular and inward-looking. We have more time to focus on ourselves and can spend less time thinking about others.

Seeing other people can offer new perspectives and the opportunity to look outwards at how others are being affected by what is happening in their lives. We are less in our ‘own bubble’ and more connected to groups and family life.

As we are starting to reconnect to our social groups, it can be helpful to consciously shift our focus to others and away from our anxiety and fears about meeting up again.

Consider how arranging to meet up is benefiting the other. Concentrate on their enjoyment in chatting to you and sharing how they have been.

Moving our focus towards being compassionate and helping others to reconnect is beneficial to both those you connect with and to yourself as well.