How to handle your re-entry anxiety as the pandemic recedes
A lot of people have been asking me the same question lately: How can I cope with my re-entry anxiety?
Folks are worried about how to stay safe while socializing; how to discuss their comfort level with loved ones or manage pressure from others to do something they’re not yet ready to do; how to deal with other people they encounter when they’re out and about. Some are concerned that their lives will become too busy or frantic again. Many say their worry doesn’t even have a specific focus—it’s become an all-encompassing, global anxiety.
“Our brains don’t like change because they don’t like the uncertainty," says Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, who is the author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind."
For more than a year, we’ve followed certain routines—working and socializing from home, wearing masks and keeping our distance from others if we do go out—and we’ve become familiar with them. But now the world is changing again. On Thursday, the CDC advised that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks or socially distance, except in certain settings. And while it feels like great news, for many of us it’s also unsettling because we’re not sure what will happen.
“Think of our ancient ancestors out in the savanna—anytime they went into new territory they didn’t know well, their brains went on high alert trying to figure out if it was dangerous or not," says Dr. Brewer.
We need some new strategies to help us cope with our anxiety about getting back out in the world. I talked to Dr. Brewer, as well as a therapist, a behavioral scientist and a positive psychologist to get advice.
Start by deciding what you feel comfortable doing. Are you OK dining outdoors but not indoors at a restaurant? Want to socialize only with people who have been vaccinated? To help you decide, ask yourself this question: “If I wasn’t concerned about what other people think, what would I be doing?" suggests Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed clinical social worker in Charlotte, N.C. “You need to do the thing that feels true for you," says Ms. Tawwab, author of the book “Set Boundaries, Find Peace."
Next, describe your boundaries to your loved ones. Ms. Tawwab suggests telling them: “This is what I feel comfortable doing." Explain that this is not about who is right and who is wrong about safety measures. It’s simply a matter of your personal choice.
You’ll also need to adjust your response to any pushback you might get, Ms. Tawwab says. You don’t have to give in to peer pressure, but you shouldn’t pressure others, either. “Everyone is entitled to handle the pandemic any way they want," she says. “We can only decide if we want to be in connection with them during this time."
Calm your brain
Your brain isn’t meant to continuously scan for threats, says Dr. Brewer, who is the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and an associate professor in the university’s medical school and school of public health. It’s supposed to calm down once it determines you’re safe. But all of the worrying you’ve done over the past year has kept your brain on high alert. It’s no wonder you’re jumpy.
You need to reassure your brain that you’re safe. Dr. Brewer suggests you remind yourself: “I am vaccinated and my friends are vaccinated. We’re within the safety guidelines. The danger here is minimal."
If your brain starts to worry again, focus it with a “grounding practice." Dr. Brewer recommends Five Finger Breathing: Stretch one hand out with space between your fingers. Then, with the index finger of your other hand, slowly trace up the outside of the pinkie while breathing in. Trace down the other side of the finger while breathing out. And repeat with the other four fingers. By engaging several senses at once—touch, sight and breath—you divert your mind. “Our brains can only pay attention to so much at a time," Dr. Brewer says.
Once your brain has calmed down, he recommends “embracing the uncertainty." “Instead of freaking out and thinking: ‘oh no!’ try to think ‘oh, this is different,’" he says. Be curious about what your next new-normal will be like. “Curiosity feels better than anxiety," he says.
Look on the bright side
“The whole point of going out is to improve our levels of happiness and well-being," says Michelle Gielan, a positive psychology researcher and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, in Dallas. “If it is not going to result in that, we might as well stay home."
So expect to have fun. Research shows that when people are more positive and optimistic, they experience fewer negative symptoms of stress, such as headaches, backaches and fatigue, says Ms. Gielan, who is the author of “Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change."
You can increase your enjoyment of an experience by savoring it in three stages, Ms. Gielan says. Start beforehand. Imagine greeting a friend you haven’t seen in a year, ordering a nice meal or a glass of wine, laughing and catching up. Ms. Gielan calls this “anticipatory savoring."
Next, savor the experience as it’s happening. Pay attention to the details—the stories your friend is telling you, the laughter of other people around you, the food, the sky if you’re sitting outside. “Record the full memory," Ms. Gielan says.
Finally, savor the memory later. Tell someone about how much fun you had. Look at photos from the event. (You took photos, right?) Journal about it in as much detail as you can remember. “Really make it worth having left your house," Ms. Gielan says.
Don’t let life get too hectic again
Many people are worried about returning to a frantic, pre-Covid pace of life. If you want to make sure you continue the activities that have become important to you over the past year—daily walks, regular family meals, a new hobby—you need to plan deliberately.
Start by deciding what pastimes you want to hang onto. Then be specific about how you’ll fit them into your life going forward. You can do this with cue-based planning, says Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be." Most people make vague plans: “I’m going to ride my bike more." But research shows that when people make “if-then" plans—“If the weather is good at 9 a.m. on Saturday, I’ll take a bike ride"—they’re more likely to stick with them.
Cue-based planning—“If X happens, then I will do Y"—helps you commit to your intention, says Dr. Milkman. It provides a trigger to help you remember what you planned to do. (Seeing your watch read 9 a.m. on Saturday is a cue to get your bike out.) “And the act of thinking through the details makes you anticipate any obstacles in advance so they won’t derail you when they arise," she says.