Managing Social Anxiety While Returning to Work, Travel and Friendship

It was a Sunday when I remembered that specific feeling that accompanied hitting the social wall. Tired, sad, and craving a dark room filled with comfort TV. It was an echo of what I’d felt at the end of 2019. I’d spent years deprioritizing my mental health for the sake of growing two businesses – and social anxiety was the canary in the coal mine. 

For someone who lives by the mantra that #EverythingIsBetterWithFriends, it felt out of alignment that I was unable to maintain my own friendships or even follow through with plans. I’d set dates with friends to do things that I was genuinely excited about, and the closer I got to the plan, the more I wanted to cancel. 

It’s hard to remember the exact feeling now, because I’ve spent more than two years learning to set boundaries and developing coping mechanisms with the help of a therapist. However, this is how I can best describe it: Making a plan was like putting myself into a glass box that slowly filled with water. Over time, the water rose and the panic increased – creating a deep-seated need to escape.

Cut to 2022. My husband and I had just gotten to Austin, Texas where we were spending the month of March. When we’d left Chicago, there was still a mask mandate in place and indoor dining required a vaccine card. That sentence is presented without opinion, only to say that Austin is whole-heartedly open – from dining, to outdoor activities, to gyms, to … other activities (I don’t know what else humans do). 

We dove into dining and socializing head-first. Booking wall-to-wall friendship in between hikes, workouts, and adventures. Thursday, I was fine. Friday, I was fine. Saturday, I was fine. And on Sunday it hit. 

Sarah Kelly wrote in-depth on coping with social anxiety last year when Chicago had its magical weeks of limitless, post-vax summer. No restrictions, no masks, no holds barred. Chicagoans remember that it was short-lived, but we lived like it was going to be – maximum friendship. 

But it was a reminder to many people who had lived more than a year without experiencing social anxiety. Regardless of your level of social anxiety, managing your energy requires intention. 

Remember the social activities you actually enjoy

Everyone’s a little different when it comes to finding enjoyment in social situations. For me, a nightmare scenario is spending a night in a bar at which people are yelling and the sound of sports is loudly playing on the speakers. I get the most joy from being outside with a small group of friends. That’s not to say that big groups aren’t fulfilling, I just can’t put myself into large social gatherings every single day. 

Remember how to have a conversation with friends who have all sorts of boundaries

I hate small talk. I get why it exists – sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge a coworker with an easy greeting. But “How was your weekend?” “Good! Yours?” “Good.” Just doesn’t do it for me. So I know that if I’m meeting with someone for the first time, I have a tendency to dig into medium-to-deep talk pretty quickly. But for more private people with different personal boundaries than mine, it may take a little longer to dig into whether or not they have a good relationship with their immediate family or not. 

For someone like me, it’s important to give people a chance to opt-out of deep talk. I try to ask a question like, “Feel free to say “no,” but are you comfortable talking about (insert topic)?”

Remember to limit your time, and plan for your exit

I find myself wanting out of most loud, group social scenarios after about 90 minutes. In one-on-one situations I can hang for the better part of a day. With that boundary in mind, I have a few sentences I use to cue to people that it’s time for me to wrap it up. “Can I help you clean up?” Is an excellent way to make your way out of someone’s home. “Should we get the check?” helps in group dining scenarios. At bars, simply asking friends what they have on their calendar in the morning is a great way to segue into your early morning or nightime routine.

Restore your energy in a way that makes sense for you

I can avoid a crash (spending a day in a dark room watching comfort TV) by peppering in restorative activities. My winning formula is spending a little time tech-free. That means walking my dog without any tech distractions, taking a bath while reading a book, or doing an outdoor Peloton run. I know that last one is technically still using tech, but if I don’t look at or touch my phone, I count it. For you, restorative activities might look a little different, like therapy, a morning meditation, or daily breathing exercises with an app like Breathwork. If you don’t know what restores you, it might be helpful to keep an energy journal like aSweatLife ambassador and writer Emily Baseman recommended for a week or two and spend some time reflecting. 

If you’re dealing with anxiety or are trying to help a loved one cope with it for the first time, Sarah Kelly also wrote a primer on anxiety that is immensely helpful. Good luck out there, #EverythingIsBetterWithFriends, but in a way that makes sense for you.

Mental Health Think & Feel

About Jeana Anderson Cohen

Jeana Anderson Cohen is the founder and CEO of a premiere wellness media destination that creates content and community to help womxn live better lives and achieve their goals. Before founding health-focused companies Jeana earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison - and fresh out of college she worked on the '08 Obama campaign in Michigan. From there, she created and executed social media strategies for brands. aSweatLife fuses her experience in building community and her passion for wellness. You can find Jeana leading the team at aSweatLife, trying to join a book club, and walking her dog Maverick.