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Young professional woman struggling with overwhelming social anxiety in the office after lockdown

Social Anxiety at Work? Do These 4 Things

Reading time | 7 mins
Diagnosed with social anxiety in 2011, Claire Eastham is one of the 5% of the population diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the UK, and she worked hard to address her worries. 
But returning to the office after the lockdown brought some frightening thoughts back to the surface. After analyzing her mindset, Claire wants to share her 4 top tips for managing social anxiety at work. 

***

I sense it before I even sit at my desk - a sudden jolt in my gut. I feel off-balance, unnerved, and exposed.

After almost two years of working from home, I've returned to the workplace. My boss smiles at me warmly, and I try to do the same... but I'm secretly studying her face for any sign that she's judging me or thinks I'm "weird." My heart is pounding, my palms are sweating, and my mouth is like sandpaper.

I want to reach for the glass of water before me, but I know my hands will shake and draw attention to my unusual behavior. I can't make eye contact, and my mind goes blank.

"Why are you being so weird?" a voice hisses in my mind. "Be professional - or at least stop being so blimming strange!" 

This is my first face-to-face meeting in over a year. It's taking place in my actual office, rather than over the safety of video chat.

I make it through in great discomfort, my muscles bunching and tense, speaking only when necessary. I leave feeling exhausted and frustrated.

What the heck just happened? I ask myself.

But, deep down, I know. My "old friend," social anxiety, had clearly decided to pay a call.

Returning to the workplace made my social anxiety flare again

I was first diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2011. Since then, I like to think I've become a bit of an expert, even writing a book about my experiences. 

So, when social anxiety targets me at work, it comes as a bit of a shock. I always forget that stress and fear act like eczema or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): they can pop up out of nowhere and cause chaos.

See, like the rest of the world, I was tucked away in my home, on and off, until recently. In the lockdown or long work-from-home periods, interactions were reduced to phone calls or online video chats. My social anxiety was incredibly happy with this arrangement – even telling me it was the only friend I needed.

"See?" my social anxiety whispered, "I've been telling you to avoid people for decades. Look how much happier I am now!" 

And then... it went to sleep. Like a curled-up snake, my social anxiety lay dormant, unagitated, and un-triggered. I thought I had finally gotten better.

In hindsight, I was blissfully naive - of course, my social anxiety wouldn't let me ditch her without a fight. 

A friend of mine once used an analogy when training for a London marathon:

"You need to train yourself," they said sternly, "I wouldn't dream of waking up one morning and think that I'm fit enough to run 26 miles! It's something you do slowly and build up to it. Give your brain the same respect."

It's true - we expect so much from our brains and have little tolerance when they don't work the way we want. After my first meeting back at the workplace, I knew I had slipped back into some bad habits.

But, this time, instead of chastising myself, I would take some steps and make sure I felt as comfortable as possible moving forward. 

4 tips for returning to work with social anxiety

1. Try a staged return to work, if you can

Remember that marathon analogy? 

It's better to build yourself up slowly than to force everything on yourself at once. Social anxiety at work won't just "go away" – you must allow yourself to adapt without strain and build confidence. 

Some companies haven't returned to five days a week on-site yet. If everyone else is doing two or three days on-site, then the rest of the week working from home, ask if you can start with just one day on-site per week.

It depends on your boss, but the worst that can happen is "no."

If your boss doesn't allow you to work from home, you can still control how much you interact with people outside of work. I've been very strict about how many social gatherings I allow myself to have each week - even with my closest friends.

It can be frustrating, but I am determined to build the right foundations for social integration in my brain. That means being patient. 

2. Be honest about the help you need  

That's with your friends, family, managers, and everybody. 

Yes, I know... honesty can be much more difficult with your employer than with your friends.

Arrange a meeting with your boss one-on-one, or ask for a member of HR to attend. Explain how social anxiety affects you at work and give concise examples of how your employer may be able to help. 

If you need to write a list to remember, do so! Here are some of the things you could write on that list: 

  • Working half days in the office 
  • Having a door half-open during meetings 
  • Going for short walks throughout the day 

The idea isn't to avoid the parts of the job you don't like. Instead, you're trying to build up to them until you're comfortable.

Remember, you being healthy = you being a fully-functional member of the team.

3. Equip yourself with some self-soothing techniques 

Social anxiety at work may feel impossible to regulate, but you must be patient and practice.

I've picked up tons of self-soothing techniques over the years, from online, in books, or reading articles by people I admire.

For example, Sheryl Ankrom, a licensed clinical professional counselor, shares this advice

Diaphragmatic or deep breathing… stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for regulating heartbeat, blood flow, and digestion.

In everyday language? Breathing in and out from the belly can signal to your nervous system that it needs to calm down. Basically, it stops you from freaking out!

Another self-soothing technique is finding a distraction. When I'm expected to sit still, my go-to is to think of girls' names that begin with the letter A. Like Andrea, Amy, Amelia, Ariana, etc. 

Counsellor Katharina Star explains it like this:

Instead of putting all your energy into the upsetting emotion, you reset your attention to something else.

4. Be kind to yourself! 

I can't emphasize that enough - be kind to yourself! 

Nobody ever got better through criticism or berating themselves. These are trying times for us all, so trust that your brain and body are doing their best.

In their book, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on ItKamal Ravikant writes: "Remember, love heals."

The takeaway

Returning to the office has been tough on everyone. 

My social anxiety aside, we've been told that the outside world is dangerous for the last two years. We were told to stop mixing with other people, isolate ourselves, and follow a list of rules that chopped and changed like the wind.

It's natural to feel apprehensive when re-engaging with activities and people we've previously avoided.

If you struggle with social anxiety at work, it may be best to look into therapy. I know: talking face-to-face about your social anxiety? That doesn't make sense!

Thankfully, there are now many more therapy options than sitting and talking to a stranger in an office. You can receive help via video call, telephone, email, or text. It may be difficult at first, but the results are absolutely worth it. 

Note: The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for managing anxiety or depression. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

NPS-ALL-NP-00654 SEPTEMBER 2022