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How Do We Challenge Anxiety and Increase Social Wellbeing?

July is Social Wellness month. Prepandemic we had many opportunities to socialize face-face with others, engage in activities, and travel. As the pandemic became more intrusive, many of us began to isolate more. We began following CDC guidelines which kept us safe. Now that guidelines have been loosened for most of 2022, people may be still be feeling less connected to others and have increased fears surrounding illnesses or reengaging in the community. Social wellness is important to our overall health, and research shows that those who socialize with others tend to live longer.

With the world mostly reopened, this is a great opportunity to challenge any new or ongoing anxieties. When the pandemic subsides and society gets back to normal, there may be pressures to reintegrate back into the world and daily activities. This being said, everyone will have a different level of comfortability with going out in public and socializing.  As therapists, we help people overcome their fears daily through a specific therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention.

When designing exposures, therapists develop a hierarchy which gradually builds people’s confidence and distress tolerance. When completing exposures, we want to consider increasing frequency, duration, and time devoted to each exposure experience. In addition, exposures may be completed both in-vivo or via a narrative. In-vivo, or in person, exposures directly challenge the feared object or situation while a narrative exposure may be used as a precursor to an exposure or after an exposure in order to prolong the fear and allow us to spend more time habituating to our anxiety.  Below is an example of exposures to gradually challenge fears surrounding some triggers to anxiety surrounding COVID.  It will be important to remain in the exposures until your anxiety subsides.

Taking off your mask outside in a large open space

  • Change time limits – Each day challenge yourself to leave it off for a longer period than the previous day
  • Try different locations with the same proximity to other individuals (i.e. parks, outdoor malls, beaches, etc.)
  • Increase proximity to others each day

Taking off masks indoors

  • Begin by taking masks off around family and friends
  • Challenge yourselves by increasing time without masks and proximity to others without masks
  • Begin by going to larger, less populated stores and then moving to smaller, busier stores

Eating a meal

  • With family/friend at home
  • Outside at a public restaurant
  • Indoors at a public restaurant
  • Eating at a barbecue

Engaging in physical touch

  • Touching items potentially used or touched by others (i.e. touching items at a grocery store, paying with money, etc.)
  • Greeting someone with a hug or handshake

As you continue to build your confidence, consider trying some of these things:

  • Taking Uber by yourself
  • Taking Uber with a friend or driving a long distance with a friend
  • Taking Uber with strangers
  • Personal hygiene activities (i.e. Nail/hair salons)
  • Going to larger, more crowded events (i.e. amusement parks, music festivals, carnivals, baseball games)
  • Allowing people to visit you in your home
  • Going to a party or having a party
  • Going swimming/beach/water park
  • Going back to work
  • Traveling

Remember that each person’s comfortability will be different, and exposures may be altered depending on anxiety levels.  Continue to challenge yourself a little more each day.