“Social interaction is a million things knitted into one. It’s like you haven’t practiced a language, then you go back to the country and it starts to come back.”

Dr. Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert

Confession time: I’m nervous about returning to campus.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited, too. But, for every second I spend enthusiastic about seeing my peers in person again, I spend two thinking about how inevitably awkward I’ll be.

Now that I’m fully vaccinated and restrictions on social gatherings in my area have begun to loosen, I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with some family and friends. And, boy, has it been a struggle. I went to a restaurant for the first time in well over a year, the waiter asked me what side I wanted and I said “sure.” I went to an outdoor gathering with a few family members for my aunt’s birthday and felt so drained by casual conversation I had to leave after an hour.

And, I just know I’ll keep embarrassing myself around my classmates this fall.

Haha I am uncomfortable.

I also know I’m far from alone in this fear.

A common complication

Social anxiety rates have skyrocketed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – both for those who already had it and for those who’d never dealt with it before. In fact, the percentage of those living in Canada reporting high levels of anxiety has tripled since pre-pandemic times, a June 2021 report from Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) demonstrates.

It’s not hard to guess why. Exposure to social situations is a common and effective treatment for social anxiety – especially in young people. That simply wasn’t possible in a year where hugs had to be replaced by heart emojis and real facetime took a backseat to the app. So, now, many people are both nervous to begin socializing again and pretty rusty at it when they do.

Ralph Wiggum asks Lisa Simpson: "So, you like...stuff?"

As psychologist Dr. Andrew Rosen writes, “While we’ve been in shut down mode, we’ve let our social ‘muscles’ deteriorate.”

Rebuilding those muscles, once we’re back on campus, will take some time. It’s like riding a bike for the first time in a while: you haven’t totally forgotten but you’ll probably be wobbly at first. In real life, you can’t just turn off your camera if you don’t want to be seen.

A rocky restart

Due to our dormant social muscles, for a lot of us, returning to campus might feel like being a brand-new person adapting to a brand-new environment. Like we’re aliens first visiting Earth; or like we’re humans first visiting planet Ephemeris-99. Or something.

(OK, that was a weird analogy. But the fact that I made it kind of proves my point.)

Anyways, there are some specific behaviours you can expect as we collectively find our footing. Some people may have trouble knowing when to stop talking; others may have trouble talking at all. You might find being around people exhausts you far quicker than it used to. You also might find yourself being hyper-aware of, or hyper-criticizing, things that came naturally before: “Am I standing too close to this person in the hallway? Does “hi” or “hello” sound less weird? Am I smiling too much or not enough?”

Symptoms of lockdown-induced social anxiety can also be physical; you might blush, find your heart racing, sweat (and then become self-conscious about it, which exacerbates it, which makes you more self-conscious, which…)

A blob feels awkward.

Baby steps

However re-entering the world is affecting you, there are some ways to make things easier for yourself. Dr. Itai Danovitch, chair of Cedars-Sinai‘s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, urges people to “Think about what factors are within your control.”

You may not be able to control how often you’re required to be around people – especially if your classes are entirely or mostly in person. But you can keep your distance, wear a mask and clean your hands frequently. You may not be able to control how many people your friend invited to their beginning-of-the-semester barbecue – but you can leave early if you aren’t feeling up to it.

Alternatively, neuroscientist and science communicator Dr. Samantha Yammine suggests bringing something that makes you feel safe into an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation – for example, listening to a favourite song as you venture onto campus for the first time.

A person listens to music.

Plus, as mentioned above, exposing yourself to the things that make you anxious can help desensitize you to them. Start small: make a point to greet a classmate at least once a day, even if that’s the only time you talk to someone. Then, maybe try getting together with one or two people to study.

Lastly, as always, say “no” to things as often as you need to (and don’t beat yourself up for it.)

Name it, don’t numb it

While honouring your boundaries, practicing self-care and challenging yourself in small ways are undoubtedly important, equally so is caring for each other. The past (roughly) 18 months have constituted a collective trauma – the ways we see ourselves and the world have profoundly changed. And, just as this trauma is collective, so must its healing be.

In Dr. Rosen‘s words, “…every single one of us is now socially awkward to a certain extent.” The least we can do is be patient and compassionate.

Stylist Jason Bolden says, "The moral of the story is: be nice to people."

So, if someone says “no” to attending an event, don’t pressure them into going. Accept that in-person conversations may be choppy for a while and allow yourself to sit in that discomfort. And, if you feel awkward, be honest about it – other people probably do, too.

The last point is arguably the most important. In an interview with CTV News, Toronto-based psychologist Nicole Haughton explains naming your uncomfortability can help ease it because it creates a sense of community. “Everybody’s going through this,” Haughton says. “We’re going through this together.”

That’s why I decided to write this piece – and why I began it with a confession. I’m nervous about returning to class in person; I feel awkward being around people again. If you do, too, come say hi this fall.

The penguins of Madagascar say, "Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave."

Earlier in this article, I said re-adjusting to being in person again is like riding a bike for the first time in a while. And, it is – but it’s a tandem bike. A 33,000-student tandem bike, to be exact.

We may act awkward once we’re back on campus – but at least we’ll be acting awkward together.

If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety about returning to campus (or anything else), book a free virtual counselling appointment through Humber’s Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre.

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