The world around us is changing. As vaccination rates rise businesses are reopening, people are beginning to see more friends and many workplaces are inviting employees back onsite.
While this may be exciting to some Californians, others are feeling what experts refer to as “reentry anxiety,” or fears around returning to "normal" social life, whether that’s a small gathering or a one-on-one interaction.
Rhiannon Brentson, an Auburn-area resident, says she’s nervous about who she might interact with when she starts to go out more. She says she doesn’t trust that everyone will follow safety precautions such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks.
“Therapy is probably in order at this point if I’m going back out in the world,” she said. “I could handle it on my own, but now that I’m going back out there it’s like ‘OK, adjustment. Big world adjustment. It’s probably time to get therapy.’”
Sacramento therapist Lyla Tyler says she’s been seeing a lot of patients in distress about the near future.
“They’ve been home so long, they’re wondering ‘do I know how to relate to other people?’” she said.
She’s seen agoraphobia, where people are afraid to leave the house at all, as well as obsessive compulsive behavior.
“Which makes sense, when we’ve been told 'wash your hands, be careful, don’t touch your face,’” Tyler said. “All those things we’ve had to do to keep ourselves safe have fueled this sense of ‘I’m not safe.’”
About half of Americans feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person social interactions once the pandemic ends, according to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association. The numbers were similar for survey-takers who were vaccinated and those who were not.
Jennifer Howell, a professor of health psychology at the University of California, Merced, says that’s because there are lots of social muscles we haven’t been flexing during the pandemic.
And on top of that, she says there will be “a whole new set of scripts for behavior” that people will have to figure out, such as when to wear a mask or how close to get to other people.
“So actually, you're going into what is essentially a totally new social situation and one about which you're pretty uncertain,” she said. “And so having some anxiety about that, I think is really common.”
But experts say we need to socialize again even if we don’t want to — interaction with others is vital to human health, and isolation can affect our immune system function and put us at risk for illness.
“You can’t just keep avoiding, you have to slowly start to get back out there ...if that’s a real, real struggle for you, then get some help,” Tyler said, referring to seeking out therapy.
State health officials plan to ease business restrictions across California beginning June 15, though health officials say people should still wear a mask in crowds and keep a safe distance from others.
Until then, experts say there are ways to prepare yourself for socializing again.
Just because you’ll have more social opportunities in the next month doesn’t mean you need to take all of them. Experts say it’s OK to decline invitations if you aren’t feeling up to going out just yet.
That might mean going on a walk in your neighborhood or a hike with a few friends before going to a larger gathering or to a public place where you’re likely to meet strangers.
Tyler recommends starting at a quiet place such as a library, where you can be in public but not be in a crowd.
Experts say now is a good time to make a list of situations that you might find uncomfortable in a post-pandemic world, and figure out how you might exit the situation or communicate your needs to people around you.
That might include what to do if someone steps into your space, or how to talk to someone about mask-wearing.
“Making plans for how you're going to deal with situations that might arise that have never arisen before can be a really good way of essentially prepping yourself for what's going to happen, and that can help reduce your anxiety,” Howell said.
Try Hybrid Work
Many workplaces are still figuring out the rules for returning to in-person work after COVID-19. If you have been working from home and have the option of whether to return to work or not, consider easing into it.
Howell says we’ve gotten accustomed to reading certain cues on Zoom calls, for example knowing when someone is about to talk because they lean in or hit the unmute button. But we may need time to remember the rhythm of an in-person conversation, or to relearn how to focus on one another after months of multitasking.
“I don't think that we are all feeling really ready to go sit in hours of meetings in person,” she said. “And that's going to be a hard transition, to sit there and feel like, 'oh, I can't check my email right now because other people can actually see my screen.’”
One way to ease back in might be to work from home one day a week and work remotely the other days, Tyler said. She also recommends picking days to go into the office where there may not be many employees, such as on a weekend, to reacquaint yourself with the setting.
And she says deep breaths also help.
“One of the best things you can do is breathe,” she said. “That slows our heart rate down, it’s reminding us that we’re safe.”
Tyler says if you don’t feel your workplace is being COVID-19-safe, talk to your managers about it
Check In With Kids
Experts say children and teens have had an especially difficult time with the pandemic, because they’ve been cut off from people and activities that could help them grow. Going back to school can cause anxiety for them in the same way adults may be nervous about going back to work, Tyler said.
She recommends a “transitional object” for young children — something they can bring from home and keep in their pocket to remind them that everything’s OK.
She also says parents should be careful that their own anxiety about post-pandemic life doesn’t trickle down.
“I’ve hardly ever met an anxious kid who doesn’t have an anxious parent,” Tyler said. “If [the parent] is showing their fears then this kid’s gonna think ‘I’m already afraid, and if they’re afraid I should REALLY be afraid, because they’re my safe person.’”
You can find a list of resources to help with mental health challenges during the pandemic here.
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