We are one year into the pandemic, a year since I wrote my first blog on handling our fears in the face of the growing threat of COVID-19, and things are… well, things are a really mixed bag and it depends on who you ask! On the one hand, there are new variants that sound scary, the vaccine delivery started out slow and disorganized, and over half a million people have died. We adjusted to living with our fears, or living through our fears – losing jobs, losing loved ones, immense strain on relationships and finances as well as on our mental health. And yet, at the same time, we are entering a time full of hope; the weather is warming up so we can gather outside safely once again, vaccines are becoming more available, numbers of new cases and deaths are on the decline, and things are re-opening.
While we have all longed for things to return to normal, the thought of returning now to our “old normal” things with our new experiences of caution and fear and social distancing is really difficult for people who struggle with anxiety. As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety, I am not only seeing the very palpable relief and the hope that is growing and spreading at this time – I am also seeing fear and anxiety about the return to in-person school, work, dining, and travel. The transition back to normal, though long-awaited and exciting, is also wrought with anxiety for so many people.
One of the ways we adjusted to living with our fears during the pandemic was to establish routines and behaviors that helped us to feel safe: wearing masks, staying home, avoiding contact with people outside our pod, only going indoors for short periods of time, maintaining social distancing, staying away from crowds. Transitioning back to pre-pandemic life means transitioning out of the routines and behaviors (at least some of them) that we put in place to feel safe. So of course re-opening businesses and schools means re-opening discomfort, fear, and anxiety for many people.
If you or a loved one is struggling with the re-openings and returning to in-person activities like school, work, sports, social events, or travel, here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
- Have compassion. Be kind to yourself or your loved one. This is hard – even the good parts! Even going to get a vaccine, the “light at the end of the tunnel,” might feel scary. Unless you survived the flu in 1917, this is your first time surviving a pandemic and so your brain is getting tested with all kinds of new challenges. So of course it is hard. We can do hard things, and we do them by drawing in support, and softening in response to our feelings rather than beating ourselves up for them.
- Drop the “shoulds.” This goes along with being kind to yourself or your loved one, but “shoulding” is not helpful. For example, thinking “I should be happy about going back, not scared” – this thought promotes shame rather than courage or resilience, which actually adds to the negative feelings we experience. Instead, just name the feeling and let it be: “I feel scared” or even “I’m sad that I’m anxious instead of excited about this” – just naming it actually allows you to start soothing the feeling, and you might start feeling happier sooner!
- Picture the positive. Is there any aspect of the scary situation that you are looking forward to or excited about? Picture that moment or experience or encounter in your mind, and relax as you picture it. Smile to relax the tension in your face and allow yourself to notice the positive emotions that might also come up during the feared event – maybe it’s feeling connected with other people again, or sparking joy getting to do your job in person again, or pride in your child for going to school, etc.
- Calm your body. When we think about or enter a situation that we view as threatening, our fight-or-flight response kicks in. Our whole body engages in a stress response- faster breathing, tensed muscles – you might notice feeling jittery or nauseated. If you encounter an immediate threat, this survival response helps you get away and return to safety; but if you are staying for a prolonged period in a stressful situation, that physical response just makes you feel physically and emotionally distressed and exhausted. Use calming techniques: take deep breaths, listen to a short meditation on YouTube, stretch and relax your muscles, ground yourself by checking in with each of your senses, and have a mantra that cues your calming (“I can handle it,” “My breath is my anchor,” “I can take care of myself in this moment”).
- Bring comfort to what scares you. Perhaps you don’t have a choice about going back to the office or your child going to school, and that is scary. Are there any supports or strategies that you know bring you comfort and soothing? For some of my younger clients, carrying a note from mom or dad to remind them “you’ve got this,” or getting a special treat after school can help bring comfort. Taking breaks, taking deep breaths, starting with a half-day, mentally rehearsing a scary situation and how to handle it (for example picturing being in a room with someone unmasked and imagining walking away or asking politely that they put a mask on) – all of these strategies might ease fears. The goal is not to remove fear (sometimes it isn’t possible- we have to do scary stuff sometimes); the goal is to respond to it by surrounding the fear with comfort, so that the fear is smaller in comparison. Hugs can help too 🙂 Here’s the visual:
This spring and the rest of this year we will all be going through transitions. For a lot of people, this is a time of hope and excitement as things slowly but surely become more “normal” once again. For the rest of you, I hope these strategies will help the stress of transitioning and the fear of in-person encounters that for so long we avoided for our protection.