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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 depending 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, the 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, the number of new cases and deaths are on the decline, and things are beginning to reopen.
While we have all longed for things to return to normal, the thought of returning now to our “old normal” with our new experiences of caution and fear and social distancing is difficult for many people who struggle with anxiety.
As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety, I am not only seeing the very palpable relief and 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.
One of the ways we adjusted to living with our fears during the pandemic was to establish routines and behaviors that helped us feel safe: wearing masks, staying home, avoiding contact with people outside our pod, only going indoors for short periods of time, maintaining social distancing, and 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, reopening businesses and schools means reopening discomfort, fear, and anxiety for many people.
If you or a loved one is struggling with the reopenings 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 all hard; even the good parts, like going to get a vaccine—the “light at the end of the tunnel”—might feel scary.
Unless you survived the flu in 1918, this is your first time surviving a pandemic and your brain is getting tested with all kinds of new challenges. So yes, it will be hard. But 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,” 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 us to start soothing the feeling, which can make us feel 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 ease 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 the joy that comes from getting to do your job in person again, or the pride in your child for going back to school.
>> 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, which includes faster breathing, tense muscles, or feeling jittery or nauseous. 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.
To combat that feeling, try 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,” or “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, which can be 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, breathing deeply, starting with a half-day, or mentally rehearsing a scary situation and how to handle it (for example, picturing being in a room with someone unmasked and either walking away or asking them politely to put a mask on) are all strategies that might ease fears. The goal is not to remove fear—we have to do scary stuff sometimes—but to respond to it by surrounding the fear with comfort, so that the fear is smaller in comparison. Hugs can help too!
This spring, and the rest of this year, we will all be going through transitions. For a lot of us, this is a time of hope and excitement as things slowly but surely become more “normal” once again. For the rest of us, I hope these strategies help you manage the stress of transitioning and the fear of in-person encounters that for so long we avoided for our protection.