Dr Sally Shaw’s eight great tips for getting back into your social routine


With more than half the country experiencing lockdowns and most Australians unable to travel, it’s fair to say that COVID has affected us all. Now, as lockdowns ease and we can get back to doing some of the things we enjoy, some of us may be feeling a bit anxious about getting back into society. Psychologist Dr Sally Shaw unpacks these feelings and gives us some very practical ideas to make the prospect of getting back out there seem less daunting.

This whole situation has been hard, hasn’t it?! COVID lockdowns, homeschooling, working from home, state border closures, inability to plan holidays and not engaging in our normal levels of socialising, have been a few of the challenges we have faced. The last 20 months have been a shock to our systems in more ways than one. But now we get to bounce back and re-engage in all the good stuff that we have been missing for so long!   

So why does it feel a little unsettling?  For good mental health and wellbeing, it’s important to remain connected to society and to be able to access health services and support networks in a timely way.  Some people with MS might be eager to jump back in…but unsurprisingly, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some of us just need to slow it down and figure out a strategic way to re-enter the social routine that contributes to our greater wellbeing.    

How can we manage the anxiety that might be creeping in and preventing us from re-engaging in social moments/appointments?

Here are my eight great tips for getting back out there, comfortably:

1. Go at your own pace – start small
Ever heard of ‘exposure therapy’? You shouldn’t go from avoiding spiders one day, to having a pet tarantula living on your shoulder the next. You need to ease into it. Remember you don’t have to say yes to everything. Start with a picnic in the park, move to a quick coffee at an outside table, pop in for lunch at a friend’s house, and go to a mid-week movie. Pace yourself. This can all be achieved over a month or two (not a weekend). Slowly does it. Build up to the maximum capacity party at a popular venue (if, or when, you feel comfortable).

2. Focus on what’s in your control
People with MS are not strangers to uncertainty. It isn’t fun to be unsure about what’s coming next, but you have had practice with this before – and you can do it again! One of the best techniques to deal with uncertainty is to focus on what you have control over, rather than what you do not have control over. You can’t change the number of cases of COVID in your area, but you control your own approach to personal safety through for example, social distancing, using hand sanitiser, wearing a mask.

3. Plan social occasions (reduce the uncertainty)
Know what is expected of you when you head out and about, and what the challenges might be. Set your boundaries around the amount of time you will be out, where you are prepared to go, who you might see, and what you feel you will be comfortable with. Know that it’s okay to voice your opinion on such things. Other people will be more or less comfortable than you will be in certain situations, and that’s okay too – they can do themselves, and you can do you. If your plans don’t line up with theirs, check back in with them in a few months. It’s fine to put catching up on hold for a little while longer until you are both comfortable with the plan.

4. Pay attention to your thoughts/feelings and behaviours (write them down!)
If you find that you are upset, worried or anxious, write your thoughts and feelings down. It never helps to say “I shouldn’t worry about it” or “stop thinking about it” because your mind is programmed to help you navigate challenges – it’s understandable that you find yourself thinking about potential risks. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that those thoughts (and the subsequent feelings that emerge because of them) are natural. Writing them down might help free up a little space to be able to identify the helpful ones.

5. Challenge unhelpful thoughts, and then focus on behaviour
It’s human to have all the thoughts and feelings!  But some thoughts are more helpful than others. It can help to practice identifying the helpful and unhelpful thoughts, so that you can learn how to let the unhelpful ones go. Holding onto them can lead to catastrophic thinking and overwhelm, and that can lead us right down the road to anxiety. Write your thoughts down, and then if your thoughts are not helpful, engage in something to offer your mind a different experience. Going outside, doing some exercise, or calling a friend are good options. Turning off the news/social media/Google search and immersing yourself in doing something you enjoy and that you can pay your full attention to, is always a good strategy to try. 

6. Stop being so judgmental (of yourself, firstly!)
Just because others are going out and about as normal doesn’t mean you have to. You’re allowed to have all the feelings and thoughts that you’re having. Be curious about them, without judgement. Isn’t it interesting that you’re feeling different today than you felt yesterday? Isn’t it interesting that you’re noticing a change in how you feel over time, but at a different rate to others? No one is right or wrong. Different is good! Remember, try to keep an open mind regarding others’ behaviours as well – we all have different challenges, and most of us are doing our best.

7. Routine
Routine breeds resilience and is integral to exercising good coping strategies. Get as much of it as you can into your day around the basics like sleeping, eating and exercising, and the seemingly more complex like expressing gratitude, engaging in meaningful relationships, and goal setting. As you emerge into this new postlockdown world, be careful not to let go of any good habits you formed (including your ownership over your own time, and your control of how to spend it.)

8. Talk to someone about it
Does it surprise you that as a psychologistI encourage you to talk about your feelings, concerns and experiences? It shouldn’t. Isolation and loneliness have been hard for so many, but there are people out there who want to talk to you about it. Your GP would be a good place to start, but the MS Nurses at MSL can help you navigate this ‘new world’ with you too. From a quick chat about something that’s bothering you to providing a referral to you for extra support – they would love to hear from you.

Dr Sally Shaw is a Melbourne-based psychologist, person with MS, and the creator of the online course ‘MS: Get Your Head Around It!’.

For more information, visit www.msgetyourheadaroundit.com If you’d like to speak to one of our MS Nurses about any concerns you may be having around getting back into your social routine, call our MS Connect team on 1800 042 138.

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