After more than a year of hunkering down and limiting social interaction to video chats and masked outdoor strolls, it’s understandable if you’re feeling nervous about returning to work, school, and whatever else post-pandemic life might bring. In fact, there are many people experiencing what experts are calling “post-pandemic anxiety,” which they define as fretting about reintegrating back into society after a long period of general isolation.
“With many now vaccinated, people are feeling enthusiastic about engaging in reopened activities, while at the same time experiencing anxiety and a sense of unease,” says San Francisco-based psychotherapist Allison Gervais, L.M.F.T. Our minds and bodies have adapted to living amid the pandemic, she says, and now that we’re looking to pivot, our natural resistance to change is kicking in.
“While the reaction that most people expect to have after a crisis is over is one of relief, it is also common to experience negative fallout, such as worry over what could happen next, difficulty believing that the crisis is over, and almost superstitious thinking, like ‘If I get used to things being calm, something bad will happen again,’” adds Elizabeth Brokamp, L.P.C., a private practitioner in the D.C. area.
That said, there’s a lot you can do to help yourself throughout the impending transition. Here, experts break down seven ways to cope with post-pandemic anxiety and emerge healthfully from quarantine life (and your sweatpants).
1. Get clear on what made you happiest pre-pandemic
Whether it’s something as simple as grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s or having a carefree dinner date with friends, Gervais recommends contemplating what you enjoyed most before the pandemic.
“Reflect upon your prior social life,” she says. “What activities brought you joy? When did you feel most energized? Journal about the who, what, when, where, and how long of socializing. Just because you can spend all of your time out of the house doesn’t mean you should.”
When we initially emerge from our COVID cocoons, FOMO (fear of missing out, folks) may feel front-and-center. However, it’s an important opportunity to get clear on what activities truly excite you and release pressure to overexert or overschedule yourself.
2. Plan your own exposure therapy
“Even after the CDC affirms that the worst of the crisis is behind us, you may continue to feel anxious about going out,” Brokamp says. “While this trepidation is normal, it’s important not to let your anxiety get the last word and keep you isolated and fearful.”
Instead, she suggests making a plan for slowly getting back out into the world, in which you gradually increase the amount of time you spend out of the house and interacting with others. “At first, you may also want to choose events that are likely to feel more manageable, whether due to the setting, the number of people, or the time commitment,” she continues. In other words, opt for a barbecue with loved ones or a museum visit with a friend or two instead of a big concert or weekend outing to an amusement park as your first outing.
3. Explore your anxiety
The mere act of identifying your anxiety can help lessen spiraling feelings of worry. Once you’ve identified it, embrace and explore it, suggests Dr. Erik Vanderlip, M.D., M.P.H., psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at ZoomCare.
“Visualize that anxiousness as the ‘check engine’ light on your car dash. Sometimes that light goes off for nothing at all, but sometimes it’s telling us something important. The light itself, like anxiety, isn’t bad—it’s just a warning,” he says. “What is it telling you? Is the threat real, or something with a very low possibility of happening?”
This questioning of your anxiety can help you identify true threats from needless worry.
4. Carve out daily time for your self-care
Don’t let your meditation or yoga practice wither away as life inches closer to normalcy. In fact, devoting time every day to yourself remains paramount. “Self-care is the need of the hour. It is no longer optional,” says Dr. Priya Narayanan, M.D., of North Carolina’s Art of Living Retreat Center. “What that means can be different for different people. For me, setting aside 20 to 30 minutes a day for wellness practices like yoga, breathing, exercise, or meditation is key.”
5. When panic strikes, get present
If you’re feeling a meltdown coming on at an unexpectedly crowded sporting event or before your first dinner party, implement some quick stress-busters to ground yourself.
First, take a deep breath. “Exhale fully, pause, and then inhale through your nose. When your belly is full of air, pause and repeat with the exhale. Repeat five times,” says Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, L.C.S.W., author of The Final 8th: Enlist Your Inner Selves to Accomplish Your Goals.
Then, try the “the five-and-five” trick. For this exercise, you’ll do five things with each of your five senses. First, notice and identify five things you see. Then, do the same for five things you smell, hear, feel, and taste (you can notice five mouth sensations as a substitute).
6. Practice communication and boundary-setting
Um, what’s a hug again? As you resume your social life, flex your communication muscles. “It’s going to be awkward at times,” says Gervais. “Leaning in for a hug might land flat or you might suddenly feel an irresistible urge to get back to your cat. Rather than fumble or fib, be honest with people. Opening up a dialogue can calm anxieties and foster closeness.”
Before you meet up with friends, touch base about their comfort level with physical touch, what kind of venues they feel safe meeting in, and anything else you want to discuss before hanging out.
7. Remember, it’s okay not to feel okay
“Just because the pandemic ends, feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress don’t magically end with it,” says Gervais. In fact, after the “honeymoon period” of getting back out there, she expects many will be hit hard in realizing that the negative feelings and difficult circumstances from the pandemic are still present.
If you’re concerned your feelings of anxiety and depression aren’t lifting and the above strategies aren’t moving the needle for you, it’s likely time to seek professional help. Reach out to a licensed psychotherapist or psychologist for support and consider seeing a psychiatrist for psychopharmacological aid.