(NEW YORK) — As more Americans are getting vaccinated against COVID-19, more schools and businesses are returning in-person, restaurants and stores are returning to full capacity and social events and nightlife are coming back to life, too.
While that all marks a turning point for the nation’s reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, it also may leave some people with what mental health experts are calling “reentry anxiety.”
“Many of us were ripped from our jobs in a matter of one day and protocols have changed in a matter of one day sometimes, so it’s a lot to navigate,” said Thea Gallagher, a psychologist and director of outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “And for many, our lives have been completely different from how they’ve ever looked before, so going back to how things were is hard.”
Reentry anxiety may look different for everyone, ranging from concerns about going into a store without a mask to going to dinner with friends to returning to the office after more than a year of working from home.
“When I think about reentry, I think about the concept of anticipatory anxiety, that they are fearful of what life will look like,” said Luana Marques, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “It’s normal to have some degree of anxiety about going back to life.”
Here are five expert-backed tips to help you cope with anxiety and boost your mental health as the country reopens:
1. Decide what pandemic positives you want to hold onto
Though the pandemic caused enormous devastation on a global scale, it may have provided some insights into your personal life.
Gallagher suggests making a list of the positive things you’ve taken away from your different lifestyle over the past year of the pandemic.
“Look at what changes you made over the last year,” she said. “What are some of the good changes and what do you want to maintain?”
“Some people are saying, ‘I don’t want to go back to the rat race the same way,’ or, ‘I want to have better boundaries with my work-life balance,’ or, ‘I like a slower morning with my kids,"” Gallagher added. “So think through, ‘How do I prioritize that and advocate for that?"”
2. Stay present and set boundaries
Along with starting small, mental health experts say to set boundaries focused on the areas of your life that you can control.
“When things feel like they’re spiraling out of control and not by your choice, it’s really important to look for the small parts of control that you can have and build in some predictability and structure to help you feel more in control,” said Andrea Bonior, a psychologist and the author of Detox Your Thoughts. “You don’t have to over-control things and you have to accept the things that you can’t fully control, but look for areas within it.”
For instance, if you do not have control over returning to the office in-person, talk to your boss about other options for flexibility at work, recommended Bonior.
“That’s going to be a conversation happening in a lot of places,” she said. “Think about how you can set some boundaries.”
Or, if you’re a parent, find ways you can keep your family connected even as activities resume and kids return to in-person school and summer camps.
“Look for boundaries and stick to them to give you a sense of control,” said Bonior. “Maybe that is, ‘My kids’ sports teams have started up again, but I’m going to put my foot down that we’re not going to do three sports at once, we’re only going to do one,’ or ‘I’m going to enforce that Sunday night we always have dinner together."”
3. Start small
Allow yourself to reenter life slowly — with a dinner or social event here and there — instead of jumping into a full calendar, experts advised.
“Start thinking about ways you can make that reentry less like you’re jumping into an ice bath and more like you’re wading into water,” said Gallagher.
Marques compares returning to life post-COVID as running a marathon versus racing a sprint.
She has developed an acronym, PACE, that people can use to help see themselves through change at a sustainable speed. Marques also offers free resources about PACE on her website.
Here are the four steps:
Pulse your well-being — “Identify the stories you tell yourself, what you are feeling and what you are doing. Notice when you are starting to spin.”
Anchor on the present moment — “Focus on the present moment while cleaning, eating, walking or bathing. Focus on your breath and notice the sensations as you breathe in and out.”
Charge up — “The best way to keep our batteries charged is by fueling our brain through eating, sleeping and exercising.”
Establish structure — “A structure that supports well-being includes boundaries, breaks and social connection.”
4. Communicate what you’re comfortable doing
“Communication is so important because right now people are assuming, ‘Well this person is kind of like me so they’re going to want to go to a restaurant as soon as I am,’ or, ‘Of course they’re going to come to my wedding,"” said Bonior. “You can’t make assumptions. You have to communicate with people.”
Bonior added that empathy is also critical, saying, “You may not understand somebody’s viewpoint that they’re not ready to go on that trip with you, but It’s really important for our relationships now to be as empathetic as possible.”
And on the flip side, Bonior said people need to communicate clearly with others what they are comfortable doing.
“Be respectful, set your boundaries and be clear about what feels comfortable for you and not,” she said. “You don’t have to apologize for not being comfortable with something yet, you just have to be clear and respectful about it so you’re not leaving them hanging.”
5. Listen to and take care of your body
When you find yourself spiraling with anxiety, Bonior said to stop and listen to your body.
“In the moment, like if you’re going into a crowded restaurant, and you feel stuff coming on, try to slow your breath and notice your body,” she said. “Notice your breath and whether you feel tense in your jaw and your shoulders and fists.”
Bonior added, “You may notice some catastrophizing thoughts too like, ‘This is dangerous,’ but try to tell yourself, ‘This is a normal reaction that I’m having but I have determined that this makes sense for me to do and that this is safe."”
Bonior also stressed that in this time of change you should pay as much attention to yourself as possible.
“Whenever there is a huge disruption, even if it’s something that we want, it really is a time to take care of our body and our brains as a priority,” she said. “Making sure you’re getting sleep and taking care of your body. Make sure you’re pausing and having some time to just laugh or cuddle a pet or do something that nourishes you. This is a time that you need it most.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-6264, available Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, or text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7, confidential, free crisis counseling. People looking for help for themselves or a loved one can also email NAMI at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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