As states and cities start to ease coronavirus restrictions and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines continues, many are thrilled to get back to business and return to normal — well, normalish — life.
Yet there are just as many people who feel conflicted about these developments. You can be glad to see things reopening but simultaneously, a little anxious about how the next phase of the pandemic will play out.
After all, the stats are still overwhelming: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world has exceeded 112 million (and counting). In the United States, more than 28 million cases have been recorded and more than 507,000 people have died so far from COVID-19.
If you’re experiencing anxiety over lockdown ending or just the coronavirus in general, know that you’re not alone. Census Bureau data shows that 30% of Americans now show symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
“Many of my clients, most of whom have never previously experienced anxiety about going out, are nervous as states begin to reopen and loosen restrictions,” said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
As that happens, Chappell Marsh said many of her clients are reporting generalized social anxiety about resuming their regular lives in public.
“They’ve spent months without much exposure to people and places while consuming a lot of coronavirus-related media,” she said. “But there are so many unknowns: We don’t know how bad this will get and we don’t know how long this will last. They don’t know what to expect and the unknown can be terrifying, especially because the risk of infection is real and can lead to death.”
Over the last few months, Chappell Marsh has learned on the fly how to address concerns like these. Below, she and other experts share their best advice for managing panic and anxiety as states begin to reopen.
Recognize that it’s entirely natural to feel anxiety about this.
Amelia Aldao is a psychologist and anxiety specialist in New York City. People in big metropolitan areas like NYC may feel heightened concern about the end of isolation since most city dwellers are used to seeing and interacting with hundreds of people in the course of a day (during subway commutes, at the office, walking around the city).
“We were used to [it], but during the last few months, most of us have only had real, face-to-face interactions with a small subset of people,” she said. “It’s going to take some adjustment to go back to ‘real life.’ At the very least, we might experience sensory overload, since our brains are no longer used to processing so many social interactions.”
As the city began to reopen in the spring, even Aldao has said she dealt with some unexpected anxiety while walking around town.
“I was walking in the park here in NYC and all of a sudden I was feeling very foggy and confused,” she said. “I then realized it was because my brain had a hard time adjusting to seeing that many people outside!”
People at the park were spaced out far enough from each other and wearing masks, but it still felt jarring, Aldao said.
“My brain was just having a hard time adjusting,” she said. “Much like when we are outside on a very bright day and our eyes have a hard time adjusting to the change in light when we go inside.”
Ask yourself: What can I control now?
You’re living with a lot of unknowns right now: Will the vaccine work as well against new strains of the coronavirus? Will your workplace do enough to ensure employees are social distancing? How safe are indoor public places right now (retail stores, for instance, and restaurants)? Will people remain vigilant about wearing masks?
When you get stuck in this loop, try to refocus on positive thoughts about things in your life you can control, Chappell Marsh said. You can wear a mask to lower your chance of catching the virus and others’ chances, too, for instance. You can talk to your manager at work and slowly reacquaint yourself with going out in public places again. (No need to rush to make those restaurant reservations!)
“In times of uncertainty and overwhelm, it’s best to bring our focus to the here and now, asking ourselves, ‘What can I do?’ said Chappell Marsh. “Shifting our mindset in that way takes us mentally from overwhelm and anxious to empowered and hopeful.”
You don’t have to rush back out there, but try to take baby steps to get comfortable with being in public again.
With the exception of work demands, there is no need to rush into anything as restrictions are loosened, said Julia Yacoob, a psychologist in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. You can still avoid big crowds and say “no” to invitations to a bar or restaurant if you’d rather keep your social circle somewhat small.
“Stay in touch with your feelings, continuously check in with yourself, and respect where you are, given what you’ve just experienced,” Yacoob said. “That doesn’t mean you need to let your feelings completely dictate your actions if you know rationally that they are not serving you well. As in, just because you feel something is true does not mean that it is.” (In other words, sometimes our feelings can convince us of that we’re more at risk than we are when, say, we go to the market with a mask.)
The goal here is to build emotional tolerance slowly, Chappell Marsh said. Obviously, the risk is real and we can’t ignore that. But avoiding everything that triggers anxiety will only make it worse, she said.
Take baby steps. Start by asking yourself, “What is a small risk I can tolerate today?” the therapist said.
“Then identify one thing that you can do that feels uncomfortable,” she explained. “Keep washing your hands, wearing your mask and maintain good distance when in public while also pushing yourself to take one small step outside your comfort zone. Once there, allow yourself to stay in the discomfort and breathe through it until the discomfort dissipates.”
When you start to worry, try this simple thought exercise.
Aldao has been telling her clients dealing with COVID-related anxiety to try this simple cognitive behavioral therapy exercise. It might help you, too.
First, identify what’s at the core of your anxiety.
“What’s triggering it?” she said. “What are the specific worries you’re having?”
Once you’ve identified these worries, ask yourself the following five questions:
What is the evidence for and against the worrisome thought?
What’s the usefulness of having this thought? (Is it adding more tension than helping you solve problems?)
What would you tell a friend or loved one in a similar situation?
Can you set aside time to worry later?
Can you breathe through the worry and practice mindfulness?
Lastly, she said, try to identify how the worries and anxiety hold you back.
“Are there specific things that they make you avoid? If so, write these down and every day, try to push yourself to do those things you’re scared of,” she explained. “This is a technique called exposure and we use it in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders.”
Consider counseling at least temporarily if you’re feeling a heightened sense of anxiety.
If your stress is worsening or you’re noticing a major uptick in anxiety, low mood or problematic behavior (substance abuse, for instance), it might be worth talking to a professional. Many people are currently turning to teletherapy ― videoconferencing with a mental health expert ― to get help.
“Counseling to help improve mental health in response to this experience can be helpful,” Chicago therapist Anna Poss told HuffPost. “As a society, we haven’t done a great job of normalizing counseling, but it is a great way to get support and does not mean anything is ‘wrong’ with you. It just means that something is hard and you don’t have to go through it alone. That’s certainly the case with a pandemic.”
Keep the focus on you and your self-care, not on others and how they’re approaching things reopening.
Continue to prioritize self-care, including exercise, a healthy diet and sleep, but also self-compassion and compassion toward others, Yacoob said. That means holding back on the judgment when you see your sister-in-law bouncing around from bar to bar on her Instagram story over the weekend or questioning the number of people your neighbor has over.
“We have no insight into what those around us may be experiencing, so as best you can, lighten up on judgment and harsh words towards others,” she said. “It’s healthier to focus on you right now.”