This time last year, there seemed to be no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic. Predictions on widespread vaccines ranged from 12 months to years. Many of us ended our phone calls with, “see you soon,” without knowing what “soon” meant.
Now, millions are receiving the vaccine each day. The
“Soon” is becoming tangible. Still, for some, it might not bring a sense of relief.
Maybe you feel anxious about what the future holds post-pandemic. You could be nervous about seeing people you haven’t seen in what seems like forever — even if you’re both vaccinated.
You may just be uncomfortable with the uncertainty of what’s to come.
You’re not alone.
Experts have some ideas about why you may feel anxious about returning to “normal,” plus some techniques to soothe your stress.
The pandemic upended our lives. For many, this has resulted in real trauma.
Frontline workers, like doctors and nurses, saw the effects of COVID-19 up close, and thousands of people lost loved ones. You may experience trauma, even if you didn’t get sick or know someone who died.
“In the diagnosis of PTSD, one of the first criteria is [being] at risk for serious harm or death or [knowing] someone at risk,” says Keith Morgen, PhD, the director of the graduate counseling program at Centenary University. “Even if you didn’t know someone who died from COVID-19, you were still living in the same world as COVID-19.”
During the pandemic, places that used to be fun, like restaurants or a family member’s home, have been considered unsafe. As more people become vaccinated, it will become less risky to step inside these places again.
Still, you may feel otherwise.
“There’s going to be a notion of, ‘This used to be a danger zone. Now it’s not, but it still feels like one,’ especially if you haven’t been out since early 2020,” Morgen says.
And rumination may only make it worse.
“The constant thoughts about COVID-19 are like a churning engine for anxiety,” Morgen says.
Avoiding crowded places during the pandemic has been a public health measure.
In non-pandemic times, avoidance of crowds, unfamiliar places, or fear of places you might not be able to escape is known as agoraphobia.
Eventually, public health won’t require ordering groceries online and Zooming into holiday dinners. That doesn’t mean you’re going to jump at the chance to RSVP “yes” to a 250 person wedding.
Depending on your vaccination status or the COVID-19 positivity rates in your community, you may still be feeling the urge to stay home. There’s still uncertainty about variants, which can heighten fears.
“There’s not even the sense of 100 percent closure that this is finished,” Morgen says.
Tara Well, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Columbia, agrees.
“It’s not going to go from not being able to touch anyone to having a big party,” Well notes. “It’s something that’s going to happen gradually.”
This gradual shift will take longer for some, and that’s OK.
Social anxiety disorder involves persistent overwhelming anxiety about social situations. These can include work presentations or eating out with friends.
Well and Morgen agree that COVID-19 isn’t likely to have caused social anxiety disorder for most. For people who already had the condition, it may be more difficult to re-acclimate.
“If someone [already] had social anxiety, they’ve had something of a buffer for the last year,” Morgen says.
In other words, people have had a legitimate reason to turn down dinner invitations. As the world re-opens, individuals with social anxiety will slowly have to face their fears.
“Now, the world is saying, ‘Come back out again,’ and they have to be in public with new situations and people,” Morgen says. “It’s going to be an anxiety they haven’t experienced in a while.”
Morgen says it’s hard to pinpoint precisely when agoraphobic tendencies and trauma symptoms will go from being reasonable effects of the pandemic to diagnosable mental health conditions.
PTSD symptoms, for example, have to linger for more than 1 month after an event — and we’re still in a pandemic.
Still, he provides a basic blueprint.
“It becomes an issue when there are situations you can’t go into, and it causes dysfunction,” he says. “Ask yourself, ‘Does the emotion fit the context?’”
For example, if the positivity rate is low in your community and you’re vaccinated but still feel intense fear about going for a routine physical, you may want to get help.
Additionally, there’s never anything wrong with seeking treatment now, even if it feels pre-emptive.
“The sooner you seek help, the sooner you recognize that it’s well within the range of a normal reaction to an incredibly abnormal situation,” Morgen says.
There are different types of therapy,
“CBT helps a person… review a certain situation, what they thought, how they felt, and then go back and reassess,” Morgen says.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morgen says you may re-evaluate whether going to a grocery store with two masks on during a low-traffic time was as dangerous as you felt it was. You can work with a therapist on reframing your thoughts and developing coping mechanisms.
Yoga and meditation may also help anxiety disorders,
“We get into our heads and whip ourselves up into a state of anxiety based on our thinking,” she says. “Deep breathing is one of the quickest ways to get yourself into a calmer state.”
While the possibility of returning to busy grocery stores and crowded cafés may have you on edge, there are ways to make things easier.
Make incremental changes
Everyone is going to come out of this crisis at different paces. Well and Morgen agree that taking things slow while following public health guidance can help you re-acclimate.
“Expose yourself to going out for an hour at a time or even a 15-minute walk without a whole day of running errands,” Well says.
Well suggests gradually increasing the time, but she stresses the importance of honoring your limits. It’s OK to take a step back before you go forward.
“I started going out wanting to do five errands, and I got totally fried,” Well says. “Right now, I do three errands and go to the park.”
Objectively assess the situation
During your errands, you might step back and assess the danger using coping skills learned in CBT.
“When you’re in the store, say, ‘I have my masks. I have my shots. This is a different situation than it would have been last year,’’’ Morgen says.
Communicate boundaries with others
A loved one may be eager to jump into pre-pandemic life, but you might not be ready. Well recommends being upfront about your feelings.
“You could say, ‘I would love to see you, too… when this, this, and this are in place,’” she suggests.
Being clear about what it will take for you to feel comfortable, such as everyone being fully vaccinated, is key.
“It’s affirming that you want to see people but have some requirements, and those requirements are very reasonable,” Well says.
Stand your ground
Even if your boundaries are reasonable, you may receive some pushback.
“I always caution that you can be open and honest, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be received well,” Morgen says. “You have no control over that.”
However, you do control your boundaries and what makes you feel safe.
“You have to be comfortable with what your boundaries are and why you feel OK with something or don’t,” Morgen says. “You can stand your ground.”
We’re all going to come out of the crisis differently. For the last year, habits, like avoiding large, crowded space, have been considered necessary.
Even as gatherings become safer, the fear that they’re dangerous may linger. People with social anxiety may find it more challenging to re-enter society after foregoing social gatherings for months.
If you think you’re experiencing anxiety, trauma, or agoraphobia, there are resources available, like therapy, meditation, and yoga. The sooner you get treatment, the sooner you’ll start feeling better.
Remember: You’re allowed to go at your own speed. Communicate your boundaries with loved ones clearly, and know it’s acceptable to stand your ground.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.