3 Ways to Ease Re-Entry Anxiety
I was genuinely excited to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine last Friday.
After living through lockdown in a rural North Carolina county where residents — to this day — remain at very high risk for COVID-19, it felt like a tremendous weight was lifted.
Although at least one in nine people living in my county has been infected since the start of the pandemic, I still see folks without masks every single day.
At the very least, I thought, the weekly trip to the grocery store will no longer feel so fraught.
Fatigued and suffering from chills, achy muscles, and a headache, I spent most of the weekend recovering from the common side effects of the second shot. Stuck on the sofa, I tried reading a book, but my mind quickly turned to wondering when “real life” would resume.
My husband, a therapist, was vaccinated several months ago. Like most everyone we know, we’re eager to get out and about. A beach trip, dinner with friends, a movie, a yoga class, a concert — all are on our wish list.
And yet, anxiety lingers. As it turns out, we’re not alone in worrying about venturing back into the world.
The pandemic amped up anxiety
More than 80 percent of American adults said they never imagined that the pandemic would last as long as it has, according to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association.
Nearly 70 percent said that living through the pandemic “has been a rollercoaster of emotions,” and 47 percent said the stress in their lives has increased.
Even as vaccinations increase, many feel hesitant about the future, the APA reported. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said they’re uneasy about in-person interactions once the pandemic ends. Adults who’ve been vaccinated were just as likely to report concern as those who haven’t.
The APA also found that 46 percent of adults say they’re not comfortable going back to living life as they did before the pandemic. Again, the numbers were strikingly similar between those who’ve been vaccinated, 44 percent, and those who haven’t, 46 percent.
“It’s pretty normal right now to feel that way,” Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the APA, told USA Today. “I do think there’s this part of us that feels like, ‘I’ve been wanting this for the last year, and now it’s here and, I don’t know how to handle it.’ ”
“The pandemic is a traumatic event,” Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, told NBC’s Today.
“It becomes a very anxiety-producing moment in the life of a survivor when they return to normal,” she added. “Except now, with the pandemic, we’re all doing that.”
Mental health issues will continue
“The past year has been terribly damaging to our collective mental health,” said Michelle Williams, dean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“There is no vaccine for mental illness. It will be months, if not years, before we are fully able to grasp the scope of the mental health issues born out of this pandemic. Long after we’ve gained control of the virus, the mental health repercussions will likely continue to reverberate.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci also said he’s concerned about a post-COVID mental health crisis.
“That’s the reason why I want to get the virological aspect of this pandemic behind us because the long-term ravages of this are so multifaceted,” said the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a White House coronavirus advisor.
Some people are already showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, surveyed 1,040 people online and found that 13 percent had PTSD-related symptoms consistent with levels necessary to qualify for a clinical diagnosis, Science Daily reported.
“We found that traumatic stress was related to future events, such as worry about oneself or a family member contracting COVID-19, to direct contact with the virus, as well as indirect contact such as via the news and government lockdown — a non-life-threatening event,” said study co-author Victoria Bridgland.
COVID-19’s psychological fallout is being called the “second curve,” and is predicted to last for months, or even years, the researchers wrote.
Stepping back into the world
As people begin to grapple with how to resume their routines, experts offer advice to help them cope. Here are three things you can do to ease re-entry.
Pace Yourself. Experts consulted by the Associated Press advise “taking small steps over time.”
“The more patients go to the store or see friends, the more they’ll discover the forgotten enjoyment of social interactions and learn that much of the world is unchanged, making it easier to venture out again,” per the AP.
Psychotherapist Stefani Goerlich said, “Slow, acclimatizing experiences are better than jumping into the deep end and being unprepared for how you may respond.”
Staying mindful that “we have been through a collective trauma over the last year” is important, she told The Advisory Board, adding, “be as gentle with yourself as you would with anyone else who has just experienced a traumatic event.”
Psychologist and author Andrea Bonior cautioned against filling up your schedule too fast.
“Build in time to process and adjust after every new boundary that you’ve pushed through and be honest with yourself about whether you are going too fast,” she wrote in Psychology Today. “Even some dyed-in-the-wool extroverts may be surprised by how tired they get after even a brief social activity.”
Don’t go solo. Remember that you’re not going through pandemic recovery alone, wrote clinical neuropsychologist Molly Colvin for Boston’s National Public Radio news station, WBUR.
“While it may feel awkward at first, re-establishing connections to our community will have tremendous healing power. she wrote. “The social isolation from the pandemic has been devastating for so many, especially for the youngest and oldest among us. Video calls have been a lifeline to friends, families, and coworkers, but it’s a poor substitute for what it is like to be physically together in the world.”
“As the social fabric mends, the conversations about our collective experiences and losses will leave us feeling lighter and more connected, even if they involve difficult feelings,” she added.
Similarly, Cary Cooper, professor at Manchester University, told The Telegraph: “The idea of socializing again might worry you, but you’ll be amazed by how much better everything will feel if you make an effort to get out and safely reconnect with loved ones.”
He also suggested being open about how you’re coping.
“Don’t sit on your anxiety and pretend you’re ok — tell people if you’re struggling.”
Florida-based psychiatrist Arthur Bregman told Very Well Health that showing concern for others can also ease anxiety.
Activities like reaching out to check on a neighbor who you haven’t seen in months can aid your wellbeing, he said.
If fears and anxieties are seriously debilitating, Bregman and others recommend consulting a mental health professional.
Continue self-care. Many have benefited from having the time to practice greater self-care during lockdowns and should focus on what they’ve learned while moving into the “new normal,” experts say.
“Trauma heightens our ability to self-care, and that is one of the things we need to take with us,” Serani told Today. “The ability to say no, for example. Saying, ‘I’ve had a lot of practice, and now I’m going to continue saying no to some things.’ When you’re healing, setting boundaries and setting limits is one of the most important things.”
Bonior noted: “It’s easy to assume that as you make room for more joyful and exciting experiences in your life and crawl out from what might have felt like monotony, that your mind and body will automatically take care of themselves, and you won’t need as much sleep, downtime, healthful eating, or attention to your mental health.”
In fact, she added, the opposite is often true, and that “any disruption to what you’ve grown accustomed to can take a toll on the body and mind, even if it’s a welcome disruption.”
She advised relying on the same self-care techniques adopted during the initial stress of lockdowns and making them a priority.
Elaine Carnegie, the founder of UK mental health consultancy Beingworks, agreed that self-care is a must.
“Self-care is simply doing something we enjoy or relaxes us,” she told Marie Claire UK. “It ignites the brain to release our ‘happy chemicals’ — neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. Physiologically, self-care activities make us feel good, lift our mood and help to increase our energy levels and capacity for resilience. Most vitally, they help us to reduce stress.”
With experts’ advice in mind, we’ll save our celebration until my soldier son visits in a couple of weeks before he heads to South Korea with the U.S. Army. All our family members are vaccinated, so we can gather safely inside around the kitchen table as well as outside around the fire pit.
We won’t see him again for at least nine months after he leaves, so I’m sure there’ll be a few tears. But nothing can diminish the joy of getting together without worry and being able to give him and each of his brothers a great big hug.