CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As experts learn more about the novel coronavirus, news and information changes. For the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Americans are getting vaccinated for COVID-19 by the thousands and infection rates are dropping in most states, things are looking up for the first time in more than a year; some would say that a return to some version of normal actually seems within reach.
Despite that good news, some of us are still stuck in pandemic panic mode. Instead of relief, the thought of going back to pre-pandemic work and social norms is causing deep feelings of anxiety.
“Adjusting to the huge changes imposed by COVID-19 was hard enough, but many felt like the changes at least [involved] retreating to a ‘safe place,’” says Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, Ph.D., a regional medical director with Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. “The task of having to adjust [again] by returning back to a more socially interactive and stimulating life has been even more stressful.”
What’s going on? Why are you feeling COVID anxiety when you should be happy, and what can you do about it? Here’s everything you need to know about having anxiety over your post-pandemic life.
What is COVID reentry anxiety?
You’re fully vaccinated and so is your BFF, your community has a low rate of viral spread, and your friend invites you to lunch at an outdoor cafe. Rather than feeling excited to see her, you just feel stressed.
You run through all the worst-case scenarios in your head; your mind is full of “what ifs” and doubt. Worried that you won’t be able to relax and enjoy yourself, you decline your friend’s invitation. The minute you do, you feel instantly better—you’ll just stay safely protected at home, like you have for the past year.
You are experiencing COVID reentry anxiety, or anxiety about returning to your usual daily activities post-pandemic. Even though you’re vaccinated and public health officials say outdoor dining is safe for you, you still can’t shake the feelings of fear and insecurity about being in public with people outside of your household.
Why do you have reentry anxiety?
The answer is actually fairly simple, says Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast from iHeartRadio. You just went through a year-long psychological exercise that spanned the globe and affected literally everyone.
“The behavioral changes you saw in people across the world are of a magnitude that you would be hard-pressed to find since World War II,” Dr. Saltz says. “We had to go to such an extreme to get an entire population to social distance, wear masks, and stay at home for a year.”
How did we accomplish this massive feat? Through fear, in response to a real threat. (It was a necessary evil, in this case, and the course of action recommended by scientists.)
According to Dr. Saltz, our collective fear of doing things that could put us at imminent risk of getting sick and dying of COVID-19—or worse, for some people, of infecting or harming our loved ones—caused us to make major changes to our behavior. The length of time these changes lasted combined with the extreme fear factor, so to speak, means it will not be easy now to pivot and start doing those same things we were told were dangerous, says Dr. Saltz.
“Fear was the needed public health measure, but from a psychological point of view, this was a form of positive conditioning,” she explains. “If you did the right things, you reaped the reward of feeling safe—that reinforced the behavior, and now it’s a Pavlovian response that will take some time to undo.”
And, in some cases those fears are based on legitimate concerns that others who are not vaccinated might infect their children, or that the vaccine won’t protect them 100%.
How you might experience it
In general, anxiety symptoms can look different for different people, but because this is a specific type of anxiety—in response to the same trigger—there are more similarities.
Here are some ways you might observe yourself experiencing anxiety surrounding reentry after COVID quarantine:
- Avoiding invitations to do things you would have done pre-pandemic
- Being unable to enjoy yourself when you are out in public because you’re focusing only on your fears
- Thinking that socializing isn’t worth it compared to the amount of anxiety you feel when you go out
- Having typical symptoms of anxiety or panic, such as nausea and sweating, and feeling jittery, lightheaded, or short of breath
To be clear, some amount of anxiety about re-entering the public sphere is to be expected. But your anxiety should decrease as you acclimate to the new rules and put yourself out there more often. If it doesn’t, says Dr. Saltz, if it begins affecting your ability to work or maintain relationships, or if you experience a worsening in anxiety, those are signs that you aren’t managing your post-pandemic anxiety well and may need to reach out for additional help.
How to cope with anxiety in life after COVID-19
Thankfully, you have a lot of options when it comes to reducing your feelings of anxiety and learning to embrace some aspects of your previous life.
1. Do self-exposure therapy
For anxiety conditions marked by a distortion of reality, exposure therapy is one of the best ways to counteract what your brain is telling you. This also applies to reentry anxiety.
“If you are afraid to eat, what you most need to do is to eat,” says Astrachan-Fletcher. “If you are afraid of being with others, what you need most is to be with others.”
However, you should take it slow; don’t go parading maskless through a summer festival the very first time you leave the house (that could actually cause you to take a step backward in progress). Expose yourself incrementally to your fears, allowing yourself to experience improvement before advancing up to the next type of exposure.
2. Exercise your body and mind
“If you’re already anxious, it’s not hard to ‘stack’ anxieties,” says Dr. Saltz, referring to the way anxiety builds upon itself or takes on a snowball effect.
Maintaining a lower stress level day-to-day, she explains, better equips you to deal with stressful situations when you’re out in public. Exercising your body and mind is an easy way to keep your overall stress and anxiety levels down each day; try to work yoga, daily walks or aerobic exercise, muscle relaxation, mindfulness and meditation, and deep breathing exercises into your daily routine.
3. Embrace deep connections
This is challenging, since part of your COVID-19 anxiety likely revolves around being close to other people. Talking to friends about how you’re feeling, though, is often therapeutic—and the bond forged by doing something with another person can be healing, says Astrachan-Fletcher.
“Connecting with others involves learning to be flexible, open to others’ opinions and feedback, and learning to be a bit vulnerable,” she explains. “You might think isolating will help you recover from a long day of outside stimulation, but connecting with one person in a quiet café might actually be more reviving.”
4. See a mental health professional
If you’re trying to manage your anxiety about returning to normal life, but are still struggling, or feel like your anxiety is getting worse, it’s a good idea to contact a mental health professional and ask to make a plan for coping. A professional social worker or therapist can walk you through the exposure therapy process and can help you practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies to manage your anxiety.
5. Ask about pharmaceutical options
Finally, if your anxiety is affecting your life in serious ways (for example, you quit your job out of fear of catching COVID-19 under newly relaxed guidelines), you may need to discuss taking an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication to reduce your symptoms.
Note that pharmaceutical options for treating anxiety work best when paired with therapy, so if you do end up taking a medication to help your symptoms, it’s important to still reach out to a qualified professional for help.
The bottom line
It’s going to take some time to undo our conditioned fear response to everything pandemic-related. That’s okay: It’s important to understand that your anxiety is a normal reaction, that a lot of people are feeling this way, and it will take some effort to manage your anxiety.
But it is important to manage it, rather than waiting until another time, another invitation, another pandemic benchmark to confront your fears.
“We don’t want you to overwhelm yourself, but you do need to keep moving in your baby steps,” says Dr. Saltz. “When you avoid something and feel relieved about it, you’ve just reinforced your misguided fear.”