Overcoming Pandemic Re-Entry Anxiety
As COVID-19 vaccination rates rise and communities return to pre-pandemic lifestyles, many people are experiencing some anxiety or hesitancy about returning to old routines. Maybe you’re feeling uncertain about what your post-pandemic social life will look like, or you’re worried about not knowing who is or isn’t vaccinated as mask mandates come to an end. None of us have been through a global pandemic before, so it’s completely understandable to have some anxiety about this shift.
Where does re-entry anxiety come from?
Change is hard. Most people had adjusted to pandemic life – masks, social distancing, limiting the number of people you’re around – and now we no longer need to do that. Humans are pretty good at adapting to traumatic situations: starting in March of 2020, countless campaigns were telling us how to stay safe, and many of us went into survival mode and embraced that new way of living. However, our brains aren’t so great at going back to how they were before a traumatic situation.
Trauma mainly affects three parts of the brain: the amygdala, which helps with emotional processing; the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotional responses; and the hippocampus, which deals with memory. When reminded of a traumatic experience, your amygdala reacts as if you’re experiencing that trauma for the first time, while your prefrontal cortex becomes inhibited and makes it harder to manage your fear and anxiety. Reduced activity in your hippocampus makes it challenging to distinguish between the actual traumatic event and your memory of it – meaning that you’re likely to think of things that trigger memories of your initial COVID-19 fears as additional threats. For many, trauma can cause your brain to remain hypervigilant, keeping you in a highly emotional and reactive state[i].
As the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, there are no campaigns helping us to reacclimate to our old lives, leaving many people feeling like they’re struggling alone. People also tend to process emotions after a traumatic event, not during – so having a tough time right now is to be expected. Wanting to get back into the swing of things but feeling like there’s a mental block holding you back can be frustrating.
Here are some tips to help you adjust:
Accept your feelings. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t ready to jump back into things. Your life may be quite different than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are now navigating changes to their relationships, jobs, bodies, and more. Avoiding the unpleasant feelings you may have about these changes might feel more comfortable at first, but they won’t go away – acknowledging how you feel can help you to cope and move through those challenging emotions.
Start slow and small. It’s common to avoid the things that make you anxious – but you usually need to face your fears head-on at some point to move past them. The best way to get more comfortable with post-pandemic life is to start living it – this is called exposure therapy, and it’s an effective way of treating anxiety. Identify what specifically worries you about returning to pre-pandemic living and take baby steps to ease your way back in.
Set boundaries. We all have different comfort levels around pandemic safety, and some people will need more time to adjust than others. You may have friends and family members who are ready to operate the way they did before COVID-19 and others who aren’t quite there yet. Maybe you’re in a different situation than others, like living with someone who can’t get vaccinated or being unable to get vaccinated yourself, so you need to remain cautious. Setting boundaries can feel awkward, so take some time to think about what boundaries you need and your reasons for setting them so that you can go into social interactions feeling more prepared. If possible, aim to set boundaries before meeting up with people – if a friend asks you to get lunch at a place with both indoor and outdoor seating, voice ahead of time if you’re only comfortable sitting outside. Remember that everyone is allowed to create their own timeline – respect the decisions of others and stay firm with your boundaries.
Find a buddy. There’s likely someone in your life at a similar stage of re-entry comfort as you are. Tackle this challenging time together – you can hold each other accountable for taking steps forward while also being a safe and familiar face for each other as you navigate this “new normal.”
Do something fulfilling. It’s easier to be excited and motivated about communities reopening if you’re spending time with loved ones and doing things that you genuinely enjoy. Grabbing dinner at a new restaurant or getting together with a larger group of friends is more meaningful than things like walking around without a mask or feeling more comfortable in the grocery store. Make a “bucket list” of things you’re excited to be able to do again and make time for those activities.
Seek help if you need it. Adjusting to post-pandemic life is a pretty significant transition, and many people aren’t ready to move forward yet – that’s okay. If you need extra support, therapy is a great tool to help you work through this stage and get you to where you want to be. Some anxiety during this stage is to be expected, but make sure it’s not interfering with your life. If you’re feeling extremely overwhelmed or paralyzed by your fears, take a mental health screen to see if you’re dealing with symptoms of an anxiety condition. For some extra support, try out teletherapy, call a warmline, or text MHA to 741-741 to reach a trained Crisis Counselor.
[i] Bremner, J.D. Traumatic stress: Effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445-461, doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner