Your social media feed lately has probably been filled with photos of smiling people traveling, attending baseball games, and going to barbecues. We should all be feeling incredibly joyous and excited that more people are getting vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions are easing up, right? Not necessarily. If returning to your pre-pandemic routines and activities causes your stomach to flip and your heart to beat a little faster, you are not alone. A recent study by the American Psychological Association reported that nearly half of all surveyed adults felt nervous about returning to in-person interactions.
COVID-19 was a collectively traumatic experience and it will take time to readjust. For the past year, we worried about ourselves or a loved one getting sick or even dying, while our routines and livelihoods were turned upside down to accommodate pandemic precautions. We grieved the loss of loved ones as well as the loss of life as we knew it. There is no going back to normal following a trauma; it changes the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. For this reason, it’s typical for anxiety to naturally follow a traumatic experience as we adjust to a new reality.
It just isn’t that easy to return to our old ways of navigating the world after avoiding our friends, co-workers, public spaces, events, and travel for so long. For over a year we have been told repeatedly that these social situations were unsafe, so it makes sense that many of us are experiencing re-entry anxiety.
What is Re-Entry Anxiety?
Re-entry anxiety is defined by feeling uneasy and anxious about returning to pre-lockdown activities and face-to-face interactions. Common symptoms of anxiety include racing thoughts, worries that feel out of control, trouble concentrating, muscle tension, an increased heart rate, avoidance, restlessness, irritability, fatigue, and difficulties getting quality sleep. Re-entry anxiety may become a problem for you if anxiety symptoms start to interfere with your ability to enjoy life and accomplish your daily tasks, or if physical symptoms intensify.
Many people are also experiencing social anxiety as they attend their first post-pandemic gatherings or return to the workplace. Social interactions may feel more tiring than usual. It can be challenging to figure out how to dress and what to talk about if you’ve spent the past year at home alone in loungewear. Individuals may also be feeling insecure about changes to their weight and physical appearance due to the stress of the pandemic. Still, others may be unsure about how to address grief, mental health challenges, job loss, or socio-economic changes in their social circle.
Tips on How to Manage Re-Entry Anxiety
Acknowledge and name what you are feeling
The first step in managing re-entry anxiety is to acknowledge what you are feeling without judgement. Emotions are not good or bad. They are simply sources of information. Name what you are feeling and let yourself feel it. For example, you might try telling yourself, “I am feeling anxious and that is okay.” It is also perfectly normal to feel more than one emotion at a time. You can be both excited to go back to your favorite coffee shop and apprehensive about being around a large group of people.
Breathe and ground yourself in the present moment
Our nervous system gets activated when we experience anxiety triggers. When our nervous system goes into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, it can be difficult to think clearly. Consciously slowing down your breathing helps regulate your emotions so you can focus and face your fears. A simple way to do this is to practice square breathing. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for four counts. Repeat as needed.
Grounding exercises can also be beneficial when anxious thoughts start to spiral. Grounding exercises reconnect you to the present moment and the world around you, allowing for some distance between you and your anxious thoughts. There are lots of different types of grounding exercises, but this is one I often share with my clients:
- Name five things that you see (Books on the shelf, a picture on the wall, a tree)
- Name four things that you feel (The chair beneath you, the fabric of your shirt)
- Name three things that you hear (Traffic outside, people talking, a fan)
- Name two things that you smell (Coffee brewing, laundry detergent)
- Name one thing you can taste (Chewing gum, your toothpaste, a drink)
- Breathe in and out slowly a few times
Breathing and grounding exercises don’t take away the underlying stress or anxiety, but they do make you better equipped to handle it.
Identify small action steps
Another strategy to overcome re-entry anxiety is to identify some small actions that you can take to gradually become more comfortable with re-engaging with the world. That might be something like meeting up with a few friends outside or inviting a vaccinated neighbor over for coffee. As your comfort level increases, you can try additional activities.
Identify what’s in your control
There were so many things that felt out of our control this past year between the pandemic and social and political turmoil. One way to deal with anxiety is to identify and focus on what is actually in your control. You may not be able to control when your father-in-law finally gets his vaccination, but you can control your own wellness decisions such as getting vaccinated yourself, eating well and exercising, and prioritizing quality sleep.
The pandemic completely reconfigured our relationships, our routines, and our livelihoods. You might find yourself having a difficult time figuring out how to re-engage with the world. If you feel stuck, spend some time reflecting on your core values and how your priorities may have changed during the pandemic. What is important to you now? Where do you find meaning? If you value service, perhaps you could find safe ways to volunteer. If you value creativity, consider returning to an art museum or gallery exhibit.
Many of my clients have also mentioned that they are re-evaluating their connections to others as the world opens up again. Friendships that you had before the pandemic may have shifted or changed and that’s okay. Focus on investing your energy in the relationships that feel meaningful to you.
If re-entry anxiety is becoming a barrier to you living your life and doing things you enjoy, consider giving therapy a try. Therapy can give you a non-judgemental and safe place to discuss what’s on your mind, help you gain new perspectives, and support you in developing strategies to reduce anxiety. Many clients find relief in just a few sessions!
Online therapy is a convenient and affordable option for mental health services. As a therapist for Talkspace, I love checking in with my clients throughout the week, sending them resources and encouragement, and having live video sessions. I am constantly impressed with my clients’ resilience and ability to make positive change!
Healing from this emotional roller coaster we’ve been on will take some time, but there is hope. As you adjust to life post-pandemic, treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion as you would a good friend.
Wishing you continued hope and healing,
Liz Kelly, LICSW
Ask a Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. By submitting a question you are agreeing to let Talkspace use it. Full names will not be used. *In case of urgent issues, do not ask a question, call 1-800-273-8255 or go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/