As COVID-19 restrictions start to lift, people are realizing the return to normal may not be as easy as they expected. After a full year and a half of lockdowns, extreme social distancing, and isolation, many people find social situations stressful and unexpectedly draining. As if that wasn’t enough, the world is now full of extra social considerations and safety concerns we have to navigate. If you’re experiencing social awkwardness when reuniting with friends and family, you’re not alone.

Why Is This Happening?

Humans are social creatures, and most of us have had very limited social interactions since the COVID crisis began. That’s bound to take a toll. Most of us spent lockdown imagining what a relief it will be when we’re able to see our loved ones again – only to feel strange and awkward when we’re finally able to. You might find yourself feeling awkward, anxious, and exhausted from hangouts. Your social fuse might be much shorter than it used to be.

Remember, it isn’t just you. Think of this as a collective experience.

Social skills are a bit like muscles – use ‘em or lose ‘em. Luckily, developing social skills is a lifelong pursuit. Your social skills didn’t vanish in the past year. They’re just a bit rusty. Just because meeting friends for dinner feels stilted and awkward now doesn’t mean it will stay this way forever. It’s a matter of practice.

Recognize Feelings of Loneliness or Isolation

Many people felt lonely during the height of COVID restrictions. But spending time with loved ones and still feeling detached from them can be isolating in a whole new way. Loneliness can manifest itself in different ways, so you might not recognize it right away. You might feel angry, tired, irritable, or even sad when you finally see your family again and it doesn’t feel the way it used to. Notice these feelings as they come up and give yourself permission to feel.

Common Signs of Post-COVID Social Awkwardness

  • Having trouble reading subtle social cues
  • Not knowing how to act in unfamiliar situations or settings
  • Feeling heightened nervousness about situations that may have been easy to navigate before
  • Hypersensitivity or hypervigilance
  • Oversharing during conversations
  • Wanting to spend time with people, but feeling uncomfortable during actual social gatherings
  • Feeling more self-conscious than usual
  • Avoiding social interactions like phone calls, Zoom hangouts, or in-person activities – even ones you enjoy
  • Choosing solo activities over group ones

How to Get Back Into the Groove of Social Situations

Point It Out
Remember, you’re not the only one feeling this way. Just like we all experienced COVID, we’re all experiencing post-COVID awkwardness. If you feel comfortable, consider opening up to people in your social circles about it. You can make heartfelt comments about how you feel, but even a well-timed joke can break the ice and help everyone acknowledge the discomfort they’re feeling. The whole group will appreciate it.

Go At Your Own Pace
Some people will adjust faster than others. When determining whether you’re ready to put another social engagement on your calendar, check in with yourself. Listen to your body and mind, rather than relying on external cues or whether you “should” feel up for a social gathering.

Keep In Touch However Feels Right
Stretching your social muscles even in small ways can be helpful. If meeting in person sounds overwhelming, try texting your family to check in. Try planning short meetups instead of all-day ones.

Practice Listening
When we feel uncomfortable, it’s common to constantly look for the right thing to say. Instead, try shifting the focus to whoever you’re with. Ask them open-ended questions and let them talk. This shifts the focus away from you while helping other people feel at ease.

Start With the Familiar
Jumping into meeting old work acquaintances at a bar you’ve never been to can feel fraught with uncertainty. Instead, start with situations that feel safe and familiar. This can look like planning a small gathering with immediate family members or one-on-one time with a close friend.
Setting matters, too. Pick a café you used to visit often, a park you love, or meet at someone’s house. That takes away a lot of the stress of navigating an unfamiliar location.

Honor the New You
While your social skills will eventually come back, realize that the past year has been a formative event for many people. You may have changed significantly. Your social limits may have shifted. You might not want to spend as much time with others as you used to. And that’s okay! Don’t pressure yourself to return to “your old life” if your pre-COVID self doesn’t feel right anymore.

If it Doesn’t Feel Right, Let Go
We’re all eager to reconnect with friends and loved ones. You might be feeling a lot of pressure to catch up with every last coworker, acquaintance, and second-cousin-twice-removed.
However, some pre-COVID relationships might not endure. And that’s okay. During lockdown, many people experienced major life shifts. Your priorities and values may have changed. If you no longer feel comfortable or connected with old friends or acquaintances, don’t force it; let them go.
Remember that even under normal circumstances, friendships come and go. Not everyone stays in your life forever. Friends lose touch during major life events all the time. Give yourself permission to feel sad about no longer feeling connected with some people. But forcing it will only make you feel more uncomfortable.

How Long Will This Last?

With social anxiety, the anticipation of an event tends to be much worse than the actual experience. You might dread social situations at first, only to realize you quickly find your groove and start to feel like yourself again. Your social skills will probably return faster than you think.

But if your social discomfort persists, be patient with yourself. If it interferes with your life or you start to have panic symptoms (trouble breathing, racing heart rate, feeling faint or shaky), consider seeing a therapist to smooth the transition back to “the new normal.” McLean Counseling Center’s experienced, caring professionals can help you ease back into post-COVID life.


If you’re struggling to Handle Post-COVID Social Awkwardness, McLean Counseling Center is here to help.