How To Cope With Social Anxiety In The Age Of Video Calls
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Let me set the scene. It's Saturday night and you're sat alone in your bedroom on your third glass of Pinot. You've done your best no-makeup-makeup, thrown on a nice top to accompany your trackies, and you're currently in the middle of a video chat with fourteen other people.
Your friend Ben is running a virtual pub quiz, bellowing out questions as the screen pings from face to face like a badly edited sitcom, and you can't help but think: "I wonder if it has zoomed in on me yet?"
It's nice to see everyone, really it is. But for the next hour and a half, you're fighting to get a word in edgeways - and when you do interject, you feel like you're performing a monologue, with 28 unsettlingly eager eyes staring back at you.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that during a time of self isolation, social anxiety would be less of an issue. But in a new era of video chatting and virtual interaction, it's not hard to see why for many, it's simply taking on a whole new form.
You only have to scroll through Twitter to see that some people aren't taking to video calling apps quite as well as others.
Amongst the gushing tributes detailing how Houseparty and Zoom have kept people sane, one user jokes: "I got that HouseParty App and now I'm afraid that someone is going to try and call me. This tweet has been brought to you by my crippling social anxiety".
While another complains: "Zoom hangouts have ushered in a new era of social anxiety where people constantly want to hang out and there is literally no excuse not to and I'm gonna throw up".
Speaking to Tyla, 24 year old music agency assistant, Milly Lupton, from Berkhamstead, has also found video call anxiety all too real.
"Normally I'm quite outgoing and confident, but when it comes to phone calls and video calls, I don't know what it is, but I just freeze," she says. "I feel like there's so much more uncertainty with a video call, it's like I'm always going to be caught off guard.
"When you're actually with people, you can take more social cues from a situation, but on video call, it's harder to see emotion, and thats the thing that scares me".
Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, 31, an events specialist from South East London, feels the same.
While I've taken solace from an online social life in recent weeks, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it I'm one of those struggling to grapple with it, too.
Switching off my laptop after a night Facetiming my mates, there are times where I can't help but feel somewhat deflated, and while the digital communication no doubt brings me moments of joy, it also comes heaped with an overwhelming sense of social pressure.
Speaking to Tyla, psychologist and psychotherapist Emma Kenny explains: "We're in an unprecedented time, and everybody copes with that differently. If you're one of those people who is having an emotional experience, you might ultimately want to minimise the impact that makes your normal seem less normal.
"We're not used to having such an intense amount of online interaction, so digital dating, having drinks with your friends online or even chatting to them virtually can often breach your normal, take you out of that comfort zone and subsequently compromise how you're feeling emotionally."
If you schedule a Zoom meeting with me, my inevitably empty schedule means I have no excuse but to attend, and if you burst into my Houseparty video chat I'll be forced to exchange pleasantries with you, even if I'd really rather not.
Emma warns that one of the problems is that people pleasers are easily pressurised into talking to those who aren't benefitting them, wasting valuable time and energy on those that they might have no care for, simply because they feel they have to.
"It ultimately takes the autonomy away, which we would normally use when picking who to socialise with in person," she says. "Any kind of forced communication can be quite upsetting and debilitating emotionally. We're using apps where people can walk into your area uninvited - that's a breach of intimacy - and there's no wonder that while some might find it fun, for others it's far more invasive."
On top of this, of course, there's the artificial nature of it all. When you're in the pub - or any social gathering for that matter - you'd rarely sit in a large group of people and talk one-by-one, silently listening as another makes their point.
But on video chat, you have to do just that, and the reality is that it can leave many of us feeling exposed, and socially vulnerable.
"Video chats aren't like a face-to-face exchange, they're great for conferences at work, but it's different when you're hanging out in more informal settings. It doesn't feel as organic and natural," Emma explains.
"But when you have a group of people who may not interact at the pub in the same formulaic way they are being forced to in an online space, it brings a whole different experience of communication.
"Stuff like that can make you question your place in a friendship group, force you to battle to be heard and leave you feeling generally socially anxious of where you fit in. Therefore, what is supposed to make us feel comfortable can do quite the contrary."
For the socially anxious, perhaps the worst pitfall of online interaction is the engrained pressure to feel happy and satisfied after you log off - as if your video call has magically replaced the joys of physical closeness, and distracted you from all your problems.
We've all seen the Instagram stories of friends enjoying boozy games nights and family get-togethers via Zoom, but Emma notes it's important to remember we don't know how anybody is *really* feeling, and be careful not to let their happiness pressurise us into an even darker place.
As psychologist Leon Festinger famously noted, humans have an inbuilt desire to compare themselves to others in order to evaluate how they're doing. So, if you're seeing others use video chatting as a coping mechanism, you'll likely wonder why they aren't working in the same way for you.
"It's hard to put on a happy face in a video chat with eight friends when inside you might not feel up to it." Emma says. "It's a juxtaposition for so many people right now. You might have parents you're not seeing, or kids you're not allowed near.
"Sure, organised fun might work for some people, but for others the pressure to enjoy it can actually exacerbate how they're feeling. It's well worth thinking that whilst you might be in a good place, there are other people who aren't."
So, what should you do if you're feeling socially anxious? We asked Emma for some practical tips to help adapt to this strange, new normal.
Practice self care:
"Burnout is a really big part of digital anxiety. I think people have to understand that they are emotionally processing high anxiety at the moment - it's all around them - so it's understandable that they might not have the emotional capacity and space to give anybody else.
"Put your phone and laptop away if that helps you cope.
"Don't feel like you have to be at the end of the phone at all hours of the day, just because your friends are. Ultimately, you have to listen to your own mind and trust you know what's best for you".
Don't be scared to say no:
"Self care has never been more important. When the day is coming to a close, sometimes you just want to sit there with a glass of wine and not think about talking - and that's okay, too. Solitude is a powerful medium.
"Looking out for your own mental and physical health is important so that you don't start feeling resentful of these social interactions.
"While saying no might feel like a negative thing to do, if it means that you don't get angry with friends then it's worth it in the long run."
"The most important thing to realise is that friends are meant to have your back. Whatever your comfort level they should accept that, as we're all handling this differently and in our own ways.
"When you say no, tell them why. The reality is that you are struggling with the volume of online communication that they might personally enjoy - and that's okay."
"This isn't about cutting your friends out. Tell them you want to communicate with them, but you'd rather do it on a one-to-one.
"You can agree instead how often you're personally up for talking per week, and set those boundaries so your friend knows what to expect, and when to check up on you.
"Why not organise to send each other a nice text every other day? What it's about is creating a bridge between each other so you can communicate without going crazy."