COVID Re-Entry Anxiety: Constructive Ways to Get Back to Normal

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The moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally upon us: life is opening back up again after a year of living under a pandemic lockdown. Vaccine rates are going up, Covid rates are going down, and businesses and workplaces are gearing up to reopen. So why are we all feeling more anxious than before?

Experts are calling it “re-entry anxiety,” and it’s affecting almost all of us. After a year of living under the threat of a global, deadly pandemic, we have some legitimate apprehensions about getting back out there with the rest of the world. Is it really safe? What if Covid comes back? What if I’ve forgotten all my social skills?

This guide will take you through everything you need to know about Covid re-entry anxiety, and give you tips on how to overcome it.

Living With a Pandemic Has Affected Us All

No matter if you personally were sick with Covid or not, living through this historic time has, in some way, affected each and every one of us.

Statistics and Facts: Covid Changes

  • 14 million Americans have become unemployed during the pandemic.
  • 1 in 9 adults with children now struggle to get food to eat every day.
  • 7 million renters in the States are now behind on their rent. Those numbers are even higher for households with children.
  • Around 70 percent of American workers worked remotely during the pandemic (compared with 30 percent who worked remotely pre-pandemic).
  • Around 40 percent of people in the U.S. reported struggling with their mental health during the pandemic.
  • More than 168 million children worldwide were out of school for a year or more. Many still haven’t returned.
  • Black and Latino people were much more affected by all of these factors than their white counterparts.

Personal Experiences

On top of these widespread societal changes that have happened over the course of the pandemic, we’ve all also experienced changes in our personal lives.

Covid and Loss

Too many of us have lost someone we love due to Covid. Well over two million people have died worldwide, to date, from this disease. That means that millions, perhaps billions, of mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, and spouses have lost a loved one due to this pandemic.

Moving forward, into “normal life,” without the person we’ve lost can feel like a painful idea.

Working From Home

With the exception of essential workers, many of us have also started working from home this year. Around 70 percent of us now work from home. This has given all of us a new view of what “work” is and can be. Working from home has had both pros and cons for our mental health overall.

Pandemic Parenting

Parents have become incredibly stressed out during the pandemic, and for good reason. Schools shut down suddenly at the start of the pandemic, leaving many parents to have to figure out online schooling protocols and become teachers on top of being parents. Not to mention, many parents are working full-time from home while supervising their children’s school performance.

Kids and Covid

On a related note, most children have transitioned to virtual learning or homeschooling during the pandemic. They’ve been robbed of the chance to socialize with other children, which is a skill that’s essential to learn during the early years.

Re-appreciating Life

This was an extremely difficult year, and there is nothing that will ever take that away. At the same time, many people have claimed to have found a newfound appreciation for life during the pandemic. Living in an almost-dystopian world has made us realize how fragile our time on this Earth is, and how fortunate we were in the before-times.

Re-Entry Anxiety Is Valid

Now that vaccines are rolling out and we’re preparing to get life back to “normal,” you might have expected to feel overjoyed and relieved — it’s like the end of a year-long nightmare.

If you’re feeling some fear and trepidation mixed into those feelings, though, you’re far from alone. Many of us are facing what the experts are referring to as “re-entry anxiety,” or the fear of entering back into life without Covid restrictions. If you’re feeling anxious about life in the “new normal,” your feelings are completely valid.

Who Is Most Impacted by Re-Entry Anxiety?

Almost all of us are impacted by re-entry anxiety to some degree or another. These factors may make you more vulnerable to experiencing heightened anxiety with re-opening:
You already have underlying mental health issues, like social anxiety or OCD, or any of the following. 

  • Returning to a workplace where you’ll suddenly be interacting with large groups of people.
  • Social distancing guidelines were taken very seriously by you, and avoided other people as much as possible.
  • You’re part of a marginalized group who is facing other risks (for example, AAPI people who are facing increasing hate crimes).
  • You live with someone who is immunosuppressed or can’t get vaccinated

It’s important to note, though, that even if none of these points apply to you, there is nothing wrong with you if you’re facing re-entry anxiety. As we’ll learn next, experiencing anxiety during this transition is a completely normal and human reaction.

Causes of Re-Entry Anxiety

There are endless reasons for why we’re feeling anxious as life returns to “normal,” and each of them is equally valid. Here are some of the most common reasons we’ve heard clients tell us they’re experiencing re-entry anxiety, from medical worries to social ones.

Vaccine Concerns

Many people, especially those who are at high-risk for developing serious complications with Covid, are nervous about the new vaccines. “Some people have a very legitimate fear,” says Joe Klemz, the founder of Real Life Counseling. “Will they still get the virus? Does the vaccine work?”

Those fears are understandable; however, it’s important to be up-to-date on the science and research about the vaccines that are available. Research has shown that the vaccines do almost eliminate the possibility of a serious Covid illness, and are over 90 percent effective. So far, millions of people have safely received the Covid vaccine with no health consequences.

Hypervigilance

Over a year ago, we were all told that staying home and away from people was necessary to save our lives and the lives of those around us. Naturally, we learned to equate staying in with safety, and going out with risk, danger, and even death.

It’s no surprise that after a year of living this way, our bodies are reacting with anxiety to the idea of going out into the world again. We’re being told to go back to doing the things that, just last year, we were told would kill us. Many people can’t help themselves from feeling hypervigilant when they’re out, even when they logically know they’re protected by the vaccine. This is a normal human reaction.

Social Anxiety

Especially for people who already struggle with social anxiety, the return to face-to-face social events (often with large groups of people) may be a reason behind re-entry anxiety, too. After a year of social distancing, some of us may be worrying about whether or not we still have the skills to interact in social situations.

Fear of the Unknown

Fear of the unknown also comes into play here. “There’s a lot of anxiety about what this new normal looks like,” says Klemz. No one can say for sure what life is going to be like now that we’re moving past a global pandemic. Safety guidelines can also be confusing for many people to keep up with. Will life feel just as it did before? Will we all keep wearing masks, even after we’re vaccinated?

Uncertainty in any form leads to anxiety. It’s completely understandable that now, when society is on the precipice of pandemic and post-pandemic life, that everyone is feeling the mental health effects of that.

Tips for Handling Re-Entry Anxiety

The good news is: you’re not alone. Again, almost everyone is facing re-entry anxiety right now, and it’s completely normal to feel this way.

With that said, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about it. There are healthy ways to cope with re-entry anxiety, which include both ways to manage your feelings and concrete actions you can take to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Dealing with Anxious Feelings

Pandemic or not, life is hard. One of the best things we can do for our overall mental wellbeing is to learn tools that help us self-soothe and manage difficult feelings on our own. That way, we can build resilience and be more prepared to confront the challenges that life brings.

One helpful coping tool is to pay attention to the way your thoughts affect your feelings. This is one of the basic tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy. We’re all prone to making up stories and falling prey to irrational and negative thinking. As the common wisdom teaches us, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

When you find yourself getting worked about something, examine the thoughts that you’re having before and after those emotions come up. Let’s take re-entry anxiety, for example. What are the thoughts that are leading to your anxiety? And are they rational, helpful, and true?

For example, maybe you’re thinking: “A lot of people probably aren’t even going to get the vaccine, and are going to be out and about continuing to spread the virus. Even if I’m vaccinated, I’m still not safe when there are people like that out there. Those selfish people need to be wearing their masks!” Understandably, that thought leads to anxiety, and maybe even anger.

But that thought may be what’s called a “cognitive distortion,” or a form of irrational thought. You don’t know for sure that the people in your community are going to refuse vaccination and attend public events. Secondly, all the science confirms that if you are vaccinated, your chances of getting seriously sick with Covid are slim-to-none.

Replace the Negative

Replacing your negative thoughts with more and accurate helpful ones is a coping tool that will serve you in almost any distressing situation. Even a simple shift in thinking, from “Those selfish people need to be wearing their masks!” to “I wish those people would wear their masks, but I also know I have no control over them,” can make all the difference.

Of course, challenging irrational thoughts isn’t the only coping tool you can use to manage your anxiety. Journaling, meditation, gardening, and physical exercise are all other things that people do to reduce their stress and anxiety. What makes you feel relaxed?

Take It Slow

The world is opening back up again, but that doesn’t mean that you need to jump headfirst into large social gatherings right away. Of course, if you’re fully vaccinated and are itching to get together with your vaccinated friends, then go for it! But it’s also important to be patient with yourself if you don’t feel ready for that quite yet.

Take it one day at a time, and don’t be too hard on yourself to feel calm or relaxed about this new “normal” right away. Klemz advises, “You really have to do what makes you feel safe.” If you feel safer wearing your mask even after you’ve been vaccinated, then that’s okay. If you prefer to continue doing your shopping online for a while, that’s okay, too.

Be gentle with yourself. Overloading your system right away with something that’s going to make you feel at-risk is likely to make you feel even more anxious. What’s one small step you can take today?

Exposure to (a Little) Fear Is Necessary

This tip may sound counterproductive to the last one that advised you to take things slow, but both are equally important. Yes, be patient with yourself and take things a day at a time. Don’t force yourself to do anything that makes you feel truly unsafe. But also don’t wait for your anxiety to completely vanish before you start venturing back out into the world. Like with all kinds of anxiety, exposure is a key part of treatment.

The longer you put off going out because of fear, the scarier it’ll become in your mind. You don’t need to start by attending a sold-out arena concert, but make sure you’re taking baby steps to challenge yourself every day. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until your anxiety goes away to take the first step — because you may be waiting forever.

Eleanore Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” and that concept applies here. Every day, try to push your limits, just by a tiny bit. On a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 is not anxiety-provoking at all and 10 is panic-inducing, start with something that’s a 1 or even a 0.5. Maybe you can visit with one friend who’s fully vaccinated, or go out for coffee at an outdoor cafe.

Talk to Your Employer

To some extent, all of us are likely going to re-enter society in the coming months. At the same time, this year of staying in has led to a lot of introspection for many of us. Some of us have realized that the way we were living pre-pandemic didn’t make a whole lot of sense, or wasn’t in line with our true values. And we may not want to go back to that way of living. This is especially true when it comes to commuting back and forth from the office.

If you’ve realized that you actually like working from home, try talking to your employer about it. Depending on your organization, your supervisors might work with you to allow you to keep working from home, at least some days out of the week. This is more likely to happen if you’ve proved over the past year that you’re capable of being a productive employee even when you’re not in the office.

Understand, though, that some companies are simply implementing strict policies about coming back to the office, and requiring that all of their employees return. And some employees may prefer to work in the office for various reasons.

Embrace Change and Integrate Pandemic Pearls

Lastly, learn to embrace change. Life after the pandemic may not look exactly like pre-pandemic life, and that’s okay — it may even be a good thing.

What have you learned from all the change, stress, uncertainty, and even pain of this year? Maybe you’ve learned how short and precious the time we have with our loved ones is. Perhaps you’ve learned that your job isn’t exactly what you want to do with your life. Or, you’ve realized that life is simpler without such a full social schedule. However, it could be the opposite: maybe you’re a lifelong introvert who’s realized that you don’t always want to be alone, after all.

Whatever your personal “pandemic pearl” of wisdom has been, hold onto it. Find ways to carry it forward into life post-Covid. How does your life need to change, in order to incorporate these things that you’ve learned about yourself and your life? Understand that change is necessary for growth, and learn to let go of the things that might be different now.

Push Through Re-Entry Anxiety to Enjoy Your Post-Pandemic Life

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that almost all of us are facing some degree of re-entry anxiety right now. If this is how you’re feeling, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Put these tools into action to start overcoming your re-entry anxiety so you can enjoy post-pandemic life to the fullest.

If you need some extra support to get through it, that’s nothing to be ashamed about, either. Many people are seeking professional mental health support during these uncertain times. Our qualified therapists are ready to guide you through managing your re-entry anxiety along with any other issue you might be facing in your life.

If you’re a resident of Oregon or Washington and need mental health services, request an appointment here. We are currently taking new patients, and are ready to help you through this difficult time in all of our lives.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not meant to be a replacement for safety and hygiene protocols implemented by the CDC. As of the time of writing the CDC states that fully vaccinated people can resume their daily activities without using a mask, except when required by local laws and guidelines. Visit the CDC’s website for up-to-date information.

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