Steps to Manage Re-entry Anxiety

Post written by guest blogger Angie Snyder, PsyD, Wellness Advisor

Over 14 months ago, our lives changed abruptly when we needed to stay home, social distance, and mask-up due to coronavirus.  For many, this sudden change led to life circumstances that were vastly different than how we’d lived before.  Now well documented, people across the globe have experienced great challenges including loss, grief, fear, stress, economic destabilization, and the psychological impact of monotony.  Despite all of the difficulties, some people have also found benefit and enjoyment to the changed circumstances – people have learned to enjoy a slower pace of life, more time with family and loved ones at home, new hobbies, less commuting, more sleep, and fewer demands of planning and decision making. 

Now that restrictions are easing and people are beginning to return to work, school, and socializing in more active ways, there is a whole new set of anxieties about what the near-future holds.   For example, those who struggled with social anxiety before the pandemic have had less opportunity to practice engaging with others, which has only increased their social anxiety.  People’s anxieties about re-entry include, but are not limited to:

*Fear of becoming sick with coronavirus, even if they’ve been vaccinated;

* Self-consciousness and/or fear of engaging in-person with people;

*Fear of being in public;

*Uncertainty from a shifting of relationships and concern about who remains their friend;

*Overwhelm with a flood of personal and professional decisions that were on hold, and

*Worry about returning to an unhealthy, overly-scheduled life.

Fortunately, unlike mid-March 2020, most of us now have opportunities to move more slowly and with more say in how we operate with the changes to come.  The following three steps might help you determine what is your unique, best path forward.

Reflect: Assess What You Want to Keep/Let Go – Give yourself time to reflect upon how you want to proceed in the coming months.  Journaling and conversations with a trusted friend, colleague, family member or therapist can help you determine what you value and what you want to prioritize in your days.  Ask yourself and answer, “What have I enjoyed and valued since the beginning of the pandemic, and what of this do I want to maintain?”  Perhaps you want to ensure you continue spending time playing the guitar, baking, painting, or enjoying whatever hobby you cultivated during the pandemic.  You might also want to continue monthly Zoom meetings with friends or family in another country or state.  Maybe you want to ensure that you continue to have a couple of unstructured hours on the weekend or weeknights to relax. Then, consider and answer the following – “What do I want to let go of that did not serve me well during the pandemic?” Perhaps you have been eating or drinking too much or spending too much time on the computer. 

Also, consider writing down what you know you need or want to do, but are scared to do – such as socializing in-person, going back to the lab, or traveling by plane.  Acknowledge what you’re afraid of or nervous about with non-judgmental acceptance.

Act: One Step at a Time – Once you’ve taken time to reflect, you can begin to think about what you want to commit to personally and professionally.  Even if you’re anxious about that activity or responsibility, gently encourage yourself to take a first step.  Anxiety is fueled by avoidance, and the longer one avoids something, the scarier it seems.  So do go forward and make plans to meet in-person with a friend, but don’t overextend yourself with too many commitments too soon.  Going slowly is also important to help you titrate discomfort.  While some discomfort is okay and helps to rebuild the “muscle” of returning to work in-person, commuting or socializing, too much anxiety can inhibit growth and thus thwart your efforts.  Enjoy the luxury of choice where you have it, and move slowly and intentionally forward toward your goals and priorities.

Communicate: Your Feelings and Boundaries – When you know what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, you can more clearly communicate this with your friends and colleagues.  Practice assertively sharing what you are most comfortable doing for your safety or mental well-being.  If you are nervous about returning to the lab, consider speaking to your PI to learn what protocols are in place to ensure a safe work environment and what choices you have to balance work in the lab with work from home.  If people invite you to a large gathering, and you prefer to start with a smaller group or an activity in a less crowded environment, let them know that you want to see them, and articulate options that would be most comfortable to you.  

Overall, be gentle with yourself as yet again you adapt to change; and, remember to take care of yourself and reach out for support as needed.

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