If you’re anxious, worried, or concerned about life after the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. As we emerge from our homes to resume work, shopping, dining out, exercise, and daily life, many of us are scrutinizing routine decisions we once thought nothing of — not to mention, we’re also facing the reality that our health and financial well-being is much different now than it was going into quarantine.
Plus, there is still a lot we don’t know. Like how safe is it to resume daily life without a vaccine? And how should we feel about states being on different timelines? Even as things open up, there are still complicated feelings and thoughts about being around other people.
We talked with five mental health experts about the psychology of opening back up and how we can adapt to the new normal.
There’s no denying that COVID-19 has impacted our mental health. But now, as we begin the process of restarting our lives and the economy, many people are balancing the need to socialize and regain some kind of normalcy with the lingering dangers of being in crowded spaces and potentially risking exposure to the virus. Experts are calling this crossroads of emotions “re-entry anxiety.”
One of the top concerns is how to deal with the stress and anxiety that people around you might be infected or contagious, which also extends to feeling awkward when near strangers.
To help ease some of this fear anxiety, the first thing experts recommend is that you only do what’s comfortable for you and go at your own pace.
“We have to think about this as a long-term strategy, over months or probably a year or so,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of Innovation 360. Take your time through the process and don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to be comfortable going back to normal right away.
Besides going at your own pace, a good place to start says Gilliland is to focus on the things you actually have control over,1 like your behavior in relation to the virus, since it’s the best strategy when we have uncertainty. This includes being factual and specific with your thoughts because worry hates that.
“We have no idea who is infected and who isn’t, so we still need to social distance, wash our hands frequently, sanitize surfaces at home and work regularly, and be mindful of how much and how many articles and news stories we are watching and reading,” he explains.
From there, we can continue to do things to maintain a strong immune system like being physically active, getting seven or eight hours of sleep, and connecting with two or three people that know you well.
As for the need to socialize, Gilliland says we desperately need to get this back in our lives, but we need to be mindful of distance and touch. Start with a small circle of close friends and get together outside in a park or yard or trail. Walk and talk and share about life and be careful that it’s not all about this virus.
Also, be aware of the people you surround yourself with. Are there people you talk to that increase your anxiety or decrease your anxiety about this issue? “More is not always better when it comes to anxiety,” says Gilliland.
For many people, walking around in a mask surrounded by others wearing masks provokes feelings of fear and uncertainty.
“People feel anxiety and fear when wearing a mask or seeing others wear masks because it is a visual and constant reminder of the threat we are under,” says Moe Gelbart, Ph.D., director of practice development at Community Psychiatry. The mask symbolizes the virus which lurks out there and ignites fears of lack of control and of an unseen enemy.
Many people are also struggling with face coverings because they prevent us from seeing each other. “Seeing faces is a very important aspect of our socialization,” says Allie Shapiro, M.D., a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. Not seeing faces, she says, removes that familiarity and connection.
Wearing or seeing someone wear a mask reminds us of the greater issue, which, Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, Talkspace therapist says our minds often react to immediately. “We can go into fight or flight mode, and living in this constant state of hyper-arousal affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she adds. To minimize the effects of this hyper-arousal, Catchings recommends the following strategies:
- Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or meditation
- Stick to regular bedtime and waking times
- Exercise during the day
- Don’t be afraid to use crying as a release since it may help to cope with anger
- Talk to an empathetic friend, family member, or therapist
- Journal or engage in creative art
- Practice deep breathing
- Use creative visioning and imagine yourself safe and healthy
If you experience increased anxiety while walking around in a mask, Shapiro says to pause where you are and try taking a few deep breaths.2 It’s also a good idea to remind yourself why you’ve gone outside and remember that you are doing the best you can to keep yourself safe.
Gelbart suggests that people remind themselves that things like hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask — all of which provide some measure of control and makes the unknowable known — reduces fear and anxiety. It’s also beneficial to remind yourself that wearing a mask is an act of kindness and care for others