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Reopening Anxiety: Remembering How to “People”

June 16, 2021

Have you ever gone for a run after not running for a long time?  Or tried lifting weights after not doing so for months (or even years)?  Could you do long division right now without a calculator?  All of these things take practice and if we haven’t done them for a while, and when we restart things, it can hurt at first.

Reopening from COVID restrictions will likely be the same.  

Sure, most of us are looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends. Enjoying physical contact, meals together, going to sporting events and concerts. Eventually, not having to run back to our cars because we forgot our masks.

But amidst all of that excitement, there is some real, valid fear and anxiety.

There are those who fear for their physical health, or maybe they are anxious about social interactions, especially the people-pleasing introverts out there – you know who you are!  The ones who say “Sure, I’ll go to that family event that I would really, really wish I could not go to because I am expected to be there so I will go even though even the thought of attending is causing me significant and overwhelming anxiety.”

We understand vaccine hesitancy – what about re-opening anxiety?

Re-opening anxiety is a real threat to some people.  Anxiety about re-emerging into the social world is riddled with fears and questions:

  • I have no idea who has/ has not been vaccinated – how can I tell who is safe?
  • What about variants?
  • How can I be sure that the vaccines I’ve taken will really protect me?
  • Can I say “No” to coming into work if I am really anxious about doing so?
  • Can people, even my employer, ask me if I’ve been vaccinated?
  • I’ve put on weight through the pandemic – what will people think?
  • I’ve really enjoyed having the flexibility to withdraw from unwanted social situations 
  • I’m not ready to go back to the routine of day-to-day life – how can I transition comfortably back to IRL work/ school expectations?

Additionally, it’s important that we don’t lose what we’ve learned – the most important of which is that we have all learned that we can do hard things.  We can make big changes quickly.  We can delay gratification.  We can have challenging conversations.  We can be creative (who knew that online learning and food delivery services could become such a central part of our lives!).  We can do without.  

There have been some other positives as well.  Many people have reported enhanced sobriety and fewer body image issues.  Others have established and developed new relationships online.  Others yet have picked up new past-times and hobbies.

So, keeping these positives in mind, some thoughts on how to approach the reopening in a psychologically healthy way:

  • Feel comfortable with setting boundaries where you can.  If you have to return to onsite work, you can continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and use sanitizer and any other protective measures.  No one is forcing you on to an elevator with 2 or more people against your will!
  • Practice non-judgement.  We have enough judgement in our own minds, we don’t need others to contribute.  So, try not to beat yourself up if young find things to be difficult. And refrain from judging others – as the saying goes, “everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.” Practice empathy and kindness instead – it’ll flow both ways before long!
  • Like building muscles, starting to run, or doing something you have not practiced in a long time – start slow and easy.  Don’t start weightlifting at your maximum – instead, start with something manageable.  Same with IRL interactions – maybe start with a trip to the grocery store or just wander through a mall; from there, maybe have a meal with someone outside of your usual bubble; set up your workspace (if possible) in a way that allows you comfortable distance from others
  • Practice “No” where possible.  Starting with “No” leaves you the option to say, “Maybe later” and eventually “Okay’ as you become more comfortable with the New New Normal.
  • Don’t be surprised if some relationships are different now than they were at the start of the pandemic.  Distance, both physical and emotional, can lead to alterations in relationships that are no one’s fault – changes are part of the natural evolution of relationships and sometimes, these changes strengthen the bond while in other situations, previously comfortable relationships can become awkward and uncomfortable.  You can re-build if you are motivated to do so, but again, no one is forcing you to do so.
  • If you do re-engage and it feels uncomfortable, stage a strategic withdrawal.  Doing so allows you to regroup and develop new approaches.  A strategic withdrawal is NOT a failure; rather it’s an opportunity to learn and adapt.  If you push too hard too early, you risk entering into a fight-flight-freeze situation and panic may be the result, which in turn would likely prevent you from trying again.  So, have a retreat plan in place.

Overall, remember, we have all done some really hard things over the past year and a half!  You now know that you can do hard things – and you can do new hard things as we move toward re-opening!

Copyright Macdonald Psychology Group 2021

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