If you're feeling anxious about going back to your pre-COVID social life, you're not alone.

By Julia Malacoff
Updated May 17, 2021 @ 1:36 pm
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Re Entry Anxiety Lead
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Your friend's getting married this summer. Maybe your office is opening again. Or you're about to travel for the first time since 2019. You're excited. But also… kinda terrified? What will it be like to be around so many people again? Is it safe? And will you remember how to act like a well-functioning human in social situations? 

If you're having these types of fears, you're not alone. "A handshake or a hug will probably never feel normal again. Social distancing has been programmed into our daily routines for a year," points out Markesha Miller, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist. It makes sense, she says, that people feel weird and disconnected about getting back to normal activities, especially ones where enjoying the presence of others is a primary focus.

Anxiety related to the ways the pandemic has changed our lives is nothing new. In 2019, around 8% of the U.S. population showed symptoms of an anxiety disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mental health surveys. The stats from the Covid-19 era? Though rates have improved from their peak, they're still at nearly 30%. In other words, it's safe to say anxiety has become an even bigger issue since the word "coronavirus" entered the popular vocabulary.

One particular flavor of pandemic anxiety known as 're-entry anxiety' emerged in the summer of 2020. Rules were starting to be relaxed, but the threat of COVID infection was still very real since vaccines weren't available yet. But despite the fact that all adults in the U.S. are eligible to get their shots now, people are still experiencing re-entry anxiety in new forms, experts say. 

What Is 'Re-Entry Anxiety'?

"Re-entry anxiety is a hot topic in most therapy sessions and with most people I come across daily," says psychotherapist Kelly Keck, LMHC. Mostly, it involves feeling anxious when faced with activities that, pre-pandemic, would have felt totally normal and safe.

Think: having a panic attack in the airport, breaking down in tears at the thought of going back to the office, or not being able to get through your kids' school drop off without a racing heartbeat set off by stress.

Keck has seen re-entry anxiety escalate over the past several months. "More people are looking at the reality of going back to an office this summer and fall," she explains. "It appears that reintegration back into a routine and prolonged exposure outside of people's 'bubble' is not something everyone feels very prepared for." While it's true that getting vaccinated provides physical protection and some comfort, it doesn't erase the mental toll of the past year and change. 

"The pandemic has heightened our awareness and increased worry related to comfort and safety," Keck explains. "As a result, things like grocery shopping or work or social events are now viewed through the lens of this new reality. And for many people, it presents a lot of unforeseen nerves." 

Who's Affected By Re-Entry Anxiety?

Interestingly, some people who dealt with anxiety pre-coronavirus may be better equipped to handle re-entry anxiety now. "They've been doing it for some time now," Keck explains, and the coping mechanisms they normally use — exercise, therapy, meditation, breathwork, and more — are likely to work well in this situation, too.

Previously, people with health anxiety were dealing with a lot of anxiety around re-entry for fear of being infected. The major difference now is that people are not as worried about actually contracting COVID thanks to vaccines, but rather are stressed about re-adapting to what they once viewed as their 'normal lives,' Miller says.

On the other hand, some have chosen not to get vaccinated, or are questioning doing so, due to the anxiety around safety. (To be clear, these fears are unfounded and health experts say that the vaccine is totally safe). These people are even more likely to be feeling stressed, Miller says. "They're having anxiety regarding the vaccine and re-entry simultaneously, experiencing fear of the unknown from both angles." 

For what it's worth, even people who are excited about getting back into the world are dealing with some level of re-entry anxiety, according to Miller. "I've noticed that people are anxious about attending larger events although they have a desire to be part of them," she says. Primarily, their concerns seem to stem from a desire to remain safe, especially around those who aren't taking any safety precautions anymore. One thing that's important to know: These feelings are normal and to be expected at this stage. "It is perfectly okay to feel excited, scared and anxious at the same time," Miller notes. 

How to Know If You're Dealing with Re-Entry Anxiety

So how can you tell the difference between normal, reasonable hesitation about going back out into the world and full-on re-entry anxiety? Here are some signs to look out for.

1. You can't sleep.

"Difficulties with sleep would likely be the first sign that you have some anxiety, whether related to re-entry or generally related to this pandemic," notes, Allie Shapiro, M.D., a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry. "This could be issues with falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up in the morning when needed."

2. You're turning down invites left and right.

As the country is moving to the re-entry phase, some people are continuing to avoid contact with others, Miller says. If you don't have a desire to return to your life prior to COVID, or find it difficult to be outside your home, it could be anxiety at play.

3. You notice physical symptoms of anxiety.

These can include an upset stomach, headaches, a rapid heart rate, or just generally feeling unwell, Shapiro says. "These would be most prominent prior to an anxiety-provoking event such as going to the grocery store, the office, or any crowded setting."

4. You're feeling completely exhausted.

All that worrying leaves us feeling drained. "It's like an iPhone with too many apps open in the background at once," says Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst and author. "The persistent worry, anxiety, and grief runs our batteries down."

How to Cope with Re-Entry Anxiety

When it comes to helping yourself feel better and get closer to your old "normal," action is always better than inaction, Newman says. Here's where to start.

Try to embrace change.

"Sometimes we have to learn to move in the direction of the wave," Miller says. When your brain resists how things currently are, it causes stress and anxiety. So actively taking steps to get used to how things are now can really help. "For instance, identify how this new normal will look for you and your family," Miller suggests. "You set the tone for it; Don't allow it to set the tone for you. Instead of focusing on what you cannot do, focus on what you will do."

Stoke your excitement. 

Remember that whole thing about anxiety and excitement coexisting? Take advantage of your positive emotions around re-entry by making a list of what you're most excited to get back to, Miller suggests. "This shifts your thinking from expecting the worst to looking forward to the experiences and places that you have missed," she says. This is a concrete way to take control of the anxiety, by reminding yourself what these places and events mean to you. 

Take it slow. 

Keck recommends her anxious clients try one new re-entry activity a week. "It could be following an old routine by going into the office, meeting up with a friend for a meal, or attending an event," she says. It should be something that feels slightly challenging, but not extremely uncomfortable. It may also be useful to consider the situation you're going to be in ahead of time carefully. "If you need to give yourself extra time or take precautions to ensure you are comfortable, it can help to spend some time reflecting on what those needs would be." 

Go with your gut.

Because of the gut-brain connection, anxiety can cause physical symptoms. If this happens when you're out and about (or are preparing to be), it may be your intuition protecting you from the threat, Miller says. "It doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it or it's a bad idea, it may just mean that you don't feel safe enough." When experiencing symptoms like this, it may be a sign you're doing too much too soon. "It's important to understand that our perception becomes our reality," Miller adds. "Therefore, if we perceive a risk, our anxiety tells us that there is a risk and we need to create a means of comfort and safety."

Use your powers of visualization. 

One way to create that sense of comfort and safety is to sit down and imagine places you'll visit or social situations you might find yourself in before actually doing them in real life. Another option is to actually visit the location ahead of time to expose yourself to your fears, according to Leela R. Magavi, M.D, Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry. " You might imagine, recreate, or visit feared places or thoughts with the support of a loved one, which has the capacity to considerably dampen your fear response over time," she explains. 

Check out when you need to. 

Yes, it's important to stay up to date, but when it comes to anxiety, there's such a thing as too much information. "Stay informed, but recognize when you're overwhelmed with information regarding re-entry, the vaccine, and opinions of others regarding the pandemic," Miller says. Take time to step away from your screens when you feel that sense of overwhelm creeping in, a feeling that just perpetuates anxiety.

Remember that you're not alone, and get help if needed.

"It's important to remember that you are not alone in what is going on, and anxiety during this situation is common even if you've never experienced it before," Shapiro says. "If you feel things are getting out of hand or out of control, start by talking to a friend or family member." If that doesn't help, consider therapy.

In addition to virtual sessions offered by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists, you can check out online therapist directories like the American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, Psychology Today's database, or any local psychological association. "Don't wait or feel like you have to go it alone," Newman adds. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.