Ready or not, the world is reopening around us. Here’s how to reengage on your own terms.
As the world slowly starts to open up again, those of us with chronic conditions — who are a higher risk for complications from COVID-19 — are rightly nervous about stepping back into society while the coronavirus is still at large.
While everyone else seems in a rush to get back to their pre-pandemic lives, many of us are feeling a little left behind.
“Our brains are not designed to change direction this quickly,” says Dian Grier, LCSW, a clinical social worker in California. “Life has been dangerous and now we must find a way to conquer our fears. The question now is how to overcome what our brains were told for over a year.”
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changing mask requirements and states easing restrictions, it’s easy to feel like we’re overreacting. It’s important to remember in times like this, however, that dealing with our anxieties is vital.
If this is something you’re trying to manage, here are some tips to help you cope with the world reopening again.
Anxiety is often fueled by the unknown, and there are a lot of unknowns out there at the moment. Focusing on what you can control can be helpful.
For example, you can’t control how other people behave, but you can decide, if it makes you feel safer, to continue wearing a mask and social distancing, even if the rules say you don’t have to, says Estepha Francique, LCSW, owner of Forward Ethos Counseling in Oakland, California.
“This ultimately brings me the most calm and keeps frustration at bay,” says Francique, who is immunocompromised.
It’s natural to feel anxious about a big change, so try not to be hard on yourself. This will help you recognize the things that make you most anxious and hopefully work to combat them when you’re out and about.
For example, if you feel nervous about going to busy areas, you may try to stick to less crowded parts of town when you’re out.
“Being present allows you to listen to what your body and mind need in a healthy way, versus reacting to what you perceive to be fearful or out of your control,” says Candice Williams, PhD, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in mental health counseling and sport performance.
Let someone you trust — such as your partner, a family member, or a close friend — know about any reopening anxiety you’re experiencing. This way, they can support you as you venture back into the world.
It could also be great to speak to other people with chronic conditions who have started going out again, says Grier. These might be friends or members of an in-person or online support group for your condition.
“If they have managed to go out into the world, listen to how they managed it, and they may even have tools that work for them,” she says.
Let others know what you’re comfortable with before you meet up. This means that they’ll be prepared and hopefully won’t pressure you into doing anything you’re uncomfortable with.
Explain that you’re still wearing masks and keeping distance and would appreciate if they did, too. Remember you can always say no if you think the person isn’t going to take your cautiousness seriously.
Rushing into it when you’re already feeling anxious will make you feel worse. Instead, start with smaller activities.
“Don’t jump back into your life all at once, but slowly build your confidence,” suggests Grier.
Instead of eating in a restaurant, you could go to a street side café. Instead of socializing with a big group, you could start with meeting up with one friend.
You might try building up your confidence about being in stores by shopping during quieter times of the week instead of on the weekend.
As a chronically ill person, my favorite activities during the pandemic have been those that avoid crowds.
My favorites include getting drive-thru coffee with a friend and sitting in a car chatting (with the windows open if you prefer) or going for a walk in a park or forest. If you or a friend has a dog, it’s even more fun — but not a requirement.
For the most part, the last year was pretty rubbish. One of the very few benefits for people living with chronic conditions has been that a lot more things have become accessible and controllable.
You may have found a way to avoid busy grocery stores by using a delivery app. When you didn’t feel up to cooking, you ordered takeout and could have a no-contact drop off. And if you didn’t feel safe going to your doctor’s office for your annual checkup, you scheduled a virtual visit.
Now, although it may look like all our safe walls our crumbling, these things are still available — and you’re still within your rights to do the things that make you feel most safe.
You don’t have to acclimate to the world right away. It’s OK to go at your own pace.
Just remember that you are strong and you can do this. You know yourself better than anyone, and you know when you’re ready.
If the pandemic has shown me anything, it’s the absolute resilience of disabled and chronically ill people. Although this next part of life is going to be a tough adjustment period, I have no doubt that we can get each other through it.
Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a freelance journalist and writer who specializes in health and disability. Her bylines include HuffPost, Metro UK, and The Independent. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Unwritten, a publication for disabled people to tell their stories. In her spare time, she can be found (slowly) chasing her dachshund Rusty around the Northeast English coast.