For the last few months, I have been working with many of my clients in therapy on what I am now calling COVID re-entry anxiety.
Most all of my clients are now fully vaccinated. Almost all of their families are fully vaccinated. Many of them have had COVID previously. Our state has one of the lowest total new case of COVID numbers in the US — and yet they are all still afraid.
They are not really afraid of COVID anymore, and in fact when I ask them about their fears, COVID itself is almost never mentioned as a factor. They are not afraid of getting sick.
They are afraid of going back to normal life.
For months, most of them have said nothing else other than they want to go back to normal life: how much they miss going to their workplace, how much they miss going to the movies or out to dinner, how much they miss the activities that they used to engage in.
And yet, now that they can do most of those things pretty freely in the state where we live, they have tremendous anxiety about doing so. They are afraid of the going out and the noise and the chaotic stress that was their life before COVID.
Most all of them have pared down their lives to bare minimums of interaction and participation. Where they used to have multiple activities every week that they engaged in with others, they now have none. Where they had self-care activities such as massage or pedicures, they have had none. Where they had activities that their kids or loved ones were involved in, that they participated in or arranged, there were none.
It was a strange kind of forced solitude that conditioned the body and brain to less noise, less chaos, less scheduling, less busy ways of being. It was in all ways quieter. In actions, sounds, and behaviors.
Now, bit by bit, things are being added back in. Some have returned to busy workplaces. Some have returned to weekly, even daily, activities outside the home. Some have returned their children to piano lessons and sports.
And with each return, the sandpaper of it all rubs against their emotions and conditioned brains and bodies in an uncomfortable way and anxiety increases.
None of them want to stay living in solitude. But they also do not want the overwhelming feelings that are coming with Covid reentry anxiety. So, how can we manage that?
By slowly reintroducing more and more activities and participation. If you have to go back to a workplace, do not also in the same week add on a weekly book club chat and a round of golf with friends. Do it one thing at a time and give your brain and body time to adjust to the new noise.
It may take a couple of weeks or more to let your body and mind settle in to this additional piece of existence. Give it time. Be patient.
Then, when that discomfort has subsided, add another piece, preferably small and not too stressful. A pedicure or massage instead of heading up the school PTA. And then let that settle in for a while.
Another thing to consider is that you do not have to go back to doing every single thing you were doing before COVID. Leave yourself some margin: a space for downtime and relaxation. Do not feel as if you have to once again fill every moment of your life with stuff to do, and the same goes for your children if you have them.
COVID re-entry anxiety is a very real thing. It does not take long at all to condition the mind and body to another state of being, and most of us had over a year of it. Now, it is going to take some time to shift it to another plane of existence. Give yourself some time and grace.
One thing at a time, one day at a time. Do not overload yourself. Leave room for margin and adjustment.
And do not forget to breathe.