You’re fully vaccinated, New York is reopening, and life is getting back to normal. So, why are you anxious? Instead of joy, you feel overwhelmed, stressed, and can’t stop asking yourself: How should I behave around others? Should I continue to physically distance? Should I shake a stranger’s hand? Do I even want to?
After more than a year of social distancing and without knowing who is fully vaccinated, returning to ‘normal’ may feel scary, especially if you already live with anxiety, according to Dr. Susan Evans, Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry. “Anxious individuals worry,” Dr. Evans says. “Whenever there is uncertainty about the future, there is the likelihood for increased worry and anxiety,” she says.
Worry is a ruminative process that takes the form of ‘What if…,’ which is usually some negative and often catastrophic prediction about something bad happening, Dr. Evans explains. During the pandemic, much of people’s worry has been safety related and presented as questions such as, “’What if I get sick…?” “What if I wasn’t careful enough…?” “What if someone in my family gets infected?”
The pandemic and its imperative to socially distance have also triggered or intensified social anxiety, which breeds worry about how others perceive you and leads to questions like, “What if they don’t like me…?” “What if I say something stupid…?”
There has also been an upswing in overall anxiety about job safety, going out of business, loss of income, or even housing. “People are more worried than ever about their financial situation,” Dr. Evans says. Longstanding and newly aggravated societal, cultural, and political problems have multiplied this anxiety, she says. “Health and economic disparities, social injustice, and gun violence are all serious matters that people are worried about.”
Despite growing optimism about the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rollout of vaccines that are proving to protect against some variants, television news and social media focus on the negative: how vaccine resistance may undermine efforts to achieve ‘herd immunity;’ rising infections from COVID variants; and concerns about the longevity of vaccine-derived immunity. “For anxious individuals, the default position is to ruminate on worst case scenarios,” Dr. Evans says. “Rumination leads to more anxiety and so it becomes a vicious cycle.”
To interrupt the cycle, it helps to understand the difference between productive and unproductive worrying, Dr. Evans explains. “Unproductive worry is about focusing on things that might happen and spinning in your head about it. Productive worry is asking the question, “Is there anything I can do about this now?” and then taking the appropriate action.”
For example, ruminating and feeling anxious over whether you can handle returning to your office is unproductive worry, whereas deciding to take one day at a time and focus on the present moment is productive. “It is important to address the problem of avoiding life and engage in work and other activities that are considered reasonable and safe,” she says.
Similarly, worrying about your risk of catching COVID (very low if you’re fully vaccinated) now that states and localities are relaxing most pandemic-related capacity restrictions, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has given fully vaccinated people the green light to go mask-less--except in certain crowded settings and venues--when enjoying other outdoor activities alone or with family members, is unproductive, whereas taking action to continue wearing a mask and socially distance is productive.
Knowing all of this may help lessen--but not erase--your anxiety and depression, which may linger for a while. In the meantime, Dr. Evans suggests easing back into life at your own comfort level.
“If you have been isolating and have not been outdoors, start with small steps such as walking to the corner,” she advises. “Practice building on this experience as your confidence grows. Keep in mind that having one foot out of your comfort zone is a good thing because it suggests you are stretching yourself.”
Practicing mindfulness is a useful skill to cope with general anxiety, she continues. “Mindfulness is about paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment. Paying attention to the present moment is the opposite of ruminating and being stuck in one’s head in unproductive worry.”
To cope with specific anxiety about returning to work, school or socializing, Dr. Evans suggests building your stress resistance by getting enough sleep, exercising, practicing yoga and or meditation, or talking to a friend.
She also warns against excessive intake of the media, particularly social media, as well as over-indulging in alcohol or food. “Anxious individuals may use substances to avoid the way they are feeling so be careful of excessive alcohol or other emotion numbing strategies such as overeating.”
As you work through your anxiety, try to remember that you are not alone. The pandemic has struck everyone in one way or another and many people may be feeling as anxious as you.
If you have previously struggled with anxiety or depression, then you may want to seek professional help. You may join a group therapy program to work on your social anxiety. Whatever you do, try to practice self-compassion and care, and don’t feel compelled to hide your feelings. Sharing them will encourage others to share theirs, which may help you to feel better and less alone in the long run.