If getting back to your life after COVID-19 isn’t the cakewalk you thought it would be, you may have some company.
Though most of us claimed we couldn’t wait to jump back into the deep end of life after nearly 16 months of isolation, working from home and communicating with friends and family via video chat, much of the country has opened post-vaccinations. Problem is, some of us have developed a little re-entry anxiety.
“I am feeling apprehensive and nervous about things returning to normal,” says Alison Angold, 49, from London. “My plan is to take things slowly and only do things that I feel comfortable with — going out with small groups of people that I know well and possibly only going out for a few hours at a time.”
Post-pandemic re-entry anxiety is real
Post-pandemic re-entry anxiety is real, says Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a psychiatrist in Katy, Texas. “And many people are still at home and not going out unless very necessary,” she adds.
It’s understandable. Daily essential activities were put on hold for more than a year and things like partying, traveling, meeting friends and being in crowds are making some people anxious.
Just like we had to learn to isolate and social distance on a dime at the beginning of the pandemic, jumping back into the water (in some minds — possibly shark-infested) is giving many of us pause.
“If a muscle isn’t used, it atrophies,” says Iliniza (Nisa) Baty, a psychotherapist, and director of behavioral health at Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center in Los Angeles. “Consider the thought of ‘How do I navigate and go out?’ as an atrophied muscle. We need to consciously think about how to do this again and recognize that it will be a process that requires small steps to get back to feeling comfortable.”
What some people feel anxious about
What’s more, Gonzales-Berrios says, some people may resist the shift back to their old routines because the pandemic has left a deep-seated trauma that will take time to heal from its roots.
There may be a fear of contracting the illness or grief for what was lost: friends or loved ones, jobs or businesses. Recovery may take time.
That said, a 2020 study in the journal “Psychological Science” found that older adults are less anxious than their younger counterparts these days. Despite being more at risk for complications of COVID-19, they report fewer negative emotions and better emotional stability overall.
But if you do have re-entry fear, it’s important to take a step back and look at the roots of it. Is your anxiety related to the global pandemic or fear based on your own experience?
This psychology behind the anxiety is normal and may include:
Fear of contracting the coronavirus
Fear of going in public, since you won’t know who’s vaccinated
Negative thoughts and worries about the future in general
Social anxiety about having to be “on” or in-person again with friends, family and colleagues
Avoiding public places or large crowds because you’re scared of meeting or interacting with a lot of people
“By taking the time to reflect and have an idea of why you’re afraid, you can slowly begin to take the necessary steps to address it,” says Baty.
Gonzales-Berrios notes that since post-pandemic re-entry anxiety is normal, people who have it “need to follow certain self-help tips to overcome the anxiety slowly and start living normally.”
6 tips for re-entry
Here are six tips for re-entry:
Try exposure therapy . Go shopping, see friends, get out and about and do something you missed most during COVID-19. “Progress slowly and allow yourself to experience a little anxiety before moving toward the next level of exposure,” says Gonzales-Berrios. With some time, the fear element will subside.
Get some exercise. Whether it’s a walk, a swim or a yoga class, exercise eases anxiety, calms jittery feelings and restlessness and restores clarity. This can work wonders in alleviating your post-pandemic anxiousness.
Connect with others. No matter what your routine looked like pre-pandemic — hermit crab or social butterfly — connecting with others may be what you missed most. So, talk to friends or family about your fears, how they’re feeling and how everyone is handling re-entry. This can provide hope and comfort in helping you get out of your shell.
Focus on what you can control. “You can control your breath, where you go, who you see and whether you wear your mask,” Baty said. “When you intentionally choose to focus on what you can take action on, you start to eliminate ifs and buts and any fears associated with those. It is extremely powerful.”
Remember that you are not alone. Lots of people are experiencing the range of emotions and feelings that you are. Talk to others who are struggling, read the Next Avenue article on what’s known as “ cave syndrome ” and find the things that make you feel better — whether that’s nature, music or hobbies.
Consider talking to a professional. If your re-entry fears prevent you from living your best life, you may want to meet with a therapist. A few sessions with an in-person or virtual therapist can give you some tools to help you push past your anxiety and get back to living.
Angold has the right idea. “I am easing back into post-pandemic life as I have returned to face-to-face work and have started to go out a bit but am certainly taking things slowly and doing what I am comfortable with,” she says.
For now, though, Angold’s avoiding large events and activities until she feels on firmer footing. But she says the small outings she’s taking will soon lead to bigger ones. And she has congratulated herself for all the things she is doing.
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, Fox News and AARP.
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