How to ease social anxiety about returning to the office

Via Peters

More than two years ago, when many offices closed for two weeks — and then two more, and then indefinitely — Kaitlin Soule knew the change in routine would ultimately spell trouble for people with social anxiety.

“I remember thinking at the beginning of the pandemic, this is going to be the worst thing for them,” said Soule, a therapist based in the San Francisco Bay area. She knew that while people with social anxiety initially might be excited about the opportunity to dodge their triggers — busy offices, awkward meetings or conferences swimming with strangers — avoidance would eventually exacerbate their anxiety. “We say in the anxiety world that the more you practice sitting with the uncomfortable, the better you get at it. So, after two years of not practicing, it’s jarring and feels like a big mountain people have to climb to get back to work.”

Indeed, as offices recall workers who were remote during the pandemic, therapists report their clients are talking frequently about social anxiety. That could stem from rustiness at socializing, or even fear about returning with a few extra pounds. “I think a lot of people assumed things would stay remote, and they’re feeling like they’re being thrown to the wolves,” Soule said.

Social anxiety about returning to the office can be quite debilitating. Soule likens it to “the Sunday scaries, but times 10.” Someone might feel overwhelming dread, or ruminate over the same thoughts, she said: “What am I going to wear? How am I going to act? What kind of things am I going to say?” Physically, social anxiety can trigger an increased heart rate, feelings of panic and shortness of breath.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late March, Benjamin Miller, a clinical psychologist and president of the national mental health foundation Well Being Trust, noted that he was feeling anxious while attending his first in-person event since before the pandemic. “It’s totally normal — we’ve been away from people for over two years,” he said. By exposing ourselves to what’s making us nervous, he added, we’ll become “desensitized” and more comfortable with certain situations again. “Last night, after two hours of being around people, I started to remember what it felt like. It was like muscle memory — ‘This is what it’s like to be social.’ ”

Miller emphasized that employers have a responsibility to make the workplace a safe space for everyone, including those with social anxiety. They can do this, for example, by normalizing in company emails or in discussions the fact that some workers might have trouble interacting at first.

Kati Vilkki, an organizational coach with Nordic technology consultancy Reaktor, suggests companies hold welcome-back gatherings to help colleagues get reacquainted with each other. Those in leadership positions should also identify which staffers are having difficulties and reach out to them to ask what they need and help them make connections. Another idea: scheduling “dialogue sessions,” or facilitated discussions for people to talk about their feelings and needs pertaining to the return to the office.

Though some of the onus is certainly on the employer, experts say there are ways workers experiencing social anxiety can prepare for returning to the office. Here are tips:

Do a dry run. Drive to your office one afternoon, but don’t go inside. Just weather the feelings it triggers, suggests Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College in New York City. “We’re really good at adapting when we practice,” she said. “This is why students take practice tests under timed conditions.”

Similarly, Soule recommends getting coffee near your office, and then sitting down outside and looking at the building. It’s one small way of approaching your fear instead of running away from it, she said.

Meet up with co-workers before the official return. Beilock suggests grabbing a drink or lunch with your colleagues before your first day back in the office. As she put it: “Why does everything have to be new that first day?” Spending time with your colleagues in advance of returning to the office can help eliminate some of those first-day jitters.

Talk about it. It can be helpful to confide in someone about how you’re feeling, Miller said: a colleague, close friend or even your manager, if they’re supportive. “The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, which means the more likely we are to feel better about it.”

When Francesca Nacu, 27, a senior account executive who’s based in Frederick, Md., first returned to the office, she remembers feeling like a zombie — drained and exhausted from the change in routine. “Talking about it with my friends and colleagues helped me realize that we’re all feeling some level of anxiety about returning to work,” she said. Some of her friends shared that they felt so depleted after being around co-workers all day that they took the next day off. That resonated — Nacu said she’s learned that she “can’t simply jump from 0 percent of my interactions being in person to 100 percent right away.”

If you’re new to the office, find a guide. Lots of people changed jobs during the pandemic and will be heading into offices for the first time. If you’re feeling anxious about meeting your colleagues in-person, reach out to someone you have a connection with and ask them to mentor or guide you that first day, Soule said. The guide can do such things as facilitate introductions and spend lunch with a newcomer. Knowing you have one friendly face to count on can help temper some of the scariness of being in a new environment.

Brainstorm conversation starters. If you’re displeased at the idea of once again running into colleagues at the water cooler, “offload some of the work you have to do in the moment” by planning ahead, Beilock said. You might ask people what they’re doing that weekend, how their kids are or how they feel about the return to the office. And remember, Beilock added: “People actually do like to talk about themselves, for the most part.”

Make your office space comfortable. Bring in something that will remind you of home — maybe the beautiful orchid you keep on your kitchen counter, said Melanie Palmietto, a psychotherapist in New York City. Or perhaps it’s your favorite mug, or some photos of your pandemic puppy. Having reminders of your happy place can help ground you during an anxiety-provoking situation.

Step outside or take a break in a quiet spot. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pop outside into the fresh air, Palmietto suggests. Go on a solo coffee run, or find a bench to sit on in a park and practice deep breathing. “It can make such a difference just to breathe and be by yourself and be outside for a second,” she said.

Plan something you enjoy for after work. The return to the office will be draining, “so make sure you schedule and engage in a relaxing activity,” said Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “Anxiety activates you on a very physical level,” which is why it’s important to calm down — maybe by blocking off an hour to read or watch your favorite sitcom. It will also give you something to look forward to.

Beilock suggests reducing the “cognitive load” around going back to the office by making things as easy as possible at home: Order groceries to be delivered before the week starts, for example, or decide you’ll order out or that the kids will be in charge of dinner one night. That will help you feel like “the bases are covered now that you’re moving into this new environment,” she said — it’s one less thing to worry about.

Ease back in. If possible, take baby steps back into working in the office, Torres-Mackie suggests. “Go in for smaller chunks,” like a day or two a week, and then slowly ramp up how much time you spend there. While you’re in the office, “really push yourself to do the awkward small talk, even though it’s uncomfortable,” she says. That will help you get past the worst of your social anxiety as quickly as possible.

With the okay from her company, Nacu, the Maryland-based worker, goes into the office at least once every two weeks and is planning to gradually increase that schedule to once or maybe even twice a week. She urges others to be clear about communicating their preferences to their employer.

Seek professional help. There are two main signs that you need to see a therapist or other mental health provider, Miller said. One is that your social anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life — if you stop going places, quit exercising or are unable to sleep, for example. The other is the duration of the discomfort: It’s natural to be anxious for the first week or two back, Miller noted, but if those feelings have lasted months, it’s probably time to enlist help.

Be kind to yourself. If you’re experiencing social anxiety over the return to the office, know that you’re in good company. “We’ve been handed so much uncertainty over the past couple years. Give yourself a lot of grace and patience as you learn how to be in this new world,” Soule said. “As long as you’re moving toward your fear instead of away, you’re doing a great job.”

Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.

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