In the past year, I have gotten very used to not wearing pants. Used to not standing for forty-five minutes both to and from an office, smashed like a sardine on the NYC subway. Used to not going to events, either because there are none or because I can log off of Zoom whenever I want to.
I want to travel and see my friends and family and go out to dinner and listen to live music. But airplanes and hugs and shared appetizers and crowded basements (just writing that made me shiver) are going to take some getting used to. I’m already conditioned to recoil at the sight of a stranger’s unmasked face.
While we all want the pandemic to be over, there are a large number of people who are feeling reopening anxiety, uneasy about the end of lockdown and the return to pre-pandemic life—or the attempts at it.
A February 2021 survey from the American Psychological Association found that overall, Americans are hesitant about the future. Nearly half of respondents (49%) said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends, and adults who received a COVID-19 vaccine were just as likely as those who had not received a vaccine to feel this way.
If you’re feeling anxious about returning to “normal” life, leaving lockdown, heading back to the office, dating, hanging out with friends, or anything else that was part of pre-pandemic life, you’re not alone—and your feelings are totally valid.
“We might have some very real, practical reasons why we don’t want lockdown to end,” said Joanne Davies, a hypnotherapist and MyWellbeing community member in one of our recent Small Talks. “Our life might be better in lockdown. Whether the reasons are big things or seemingly insignificant things, it really helps to look at all of them without judgement or without brushing them off as silly, unimportant, or selfish. Look at what all of those reasons are and see if there may be ways that we can make our new post-lockdown life incorporate more of those. And maybe we can’t—maybe it’s just sitting with that and understanding that it’s unfair and it sucks and we don’t want it to be that way.”
Letting ourselves sit with our thoughts and feelings just as they are can be helpful, but we know it’s hard! Here is some insight from our community of practitioners about reopening anxiety, who might be impacted, and how we can cope.
Reopening anxiety can manifest differently in different people, but it can look like stress about the uncertainty of the future, fears about how to adapt to new changes like wearing masks in the workplace or being exposed to situations where you might feel unsafe, or reluctance to engage in pre-pandemic activities because you’ve found more security or comfort in your locked-down life.
"The other day I was watching an old movie that was clearly pre-pandemic, but I found myself cringing when the characters were congregating without masks,” said Nancy Slotnick, a coach and MyWellbeing community member. “It’s a knee jerk reaction that has developed in the past year based on the Pavlovian effect. I call it Post Pandemic Stress Disorder. Re-training our brains to appreciate physical closeness is going to be tough but necessary. Humans need social connection. Social anxiety is now becoming a mental health pandemic. If you want to turn that around in your life, you will need to build up the muscle of social courage."
If you’re one of the people who have realized that there are aspects of physically-distanced life that appeal to you more than the way things were before, building up that muscle can be difficult.
“If you have a history of being a people pleaser or having social anxiety, as things reopen you may be feeling overwhelmed or having mixed emotions,” said Jennifer Mann, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “It is totally reasonable that this upcoming transition may be bringing dormant anxieties back to life.”
To help you stay grounded as COVID-19 restrictions lift, she suggests that now is a good time to envision how you want to adjust to the new normal. She says that identifying things you may want to begin to do, who you would like to see, and what safety precautions you are looking to maintain can help you navigate this transition with more certainty and structure.
“By thinking ahead, you can more easily navigate the opportunities that may arise,” she said. “Setting boundaries for yourself will help you integrate yourself into the new normal in ways that work for you and your needs at a pace that is unique to you.”
For others, lockdown has brought a sense of routine and safety that pre-pandemic life may have lacked.
“A person with disordered eating patterns might be prone to reopening anxiety,” said Janette Marsac, a behavioral health nutritionist and MyWellbeing community member. “As people begin to gather again, stressors of eating out, celebrating, and breaking routines can trigger an individual struggling with their relationship with food.”
She adds that it can feel like loss of control and be extremely difficult to cultivate a healthy sense of self amidst so much food and social expectation. People with disordered eating patterns can remember that while food and drink are often central points to a gathering, it’s not the only reason we get together, and she recommends focusing on the people you’re with and engaging in conversations to help you feel more at ease.
If you’re feeling anxiety about COVID-19 restrictions lifting and the return to pre-pandemic life, the future can look daunting, but there are ways to cope.
“Our perception is a crucial aspect of how we understand our anxiety,” said Kyle McEvoy, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “At higher levels of emotional distress, we have difficulty processing information that may help us reduce our distress levels. It is essential to think flexibly between mental polarities such as self — other, automatic — controlled, cognition — affect, external — internal.”
He says that utilizing a multi-perspective lens in our thought processes allows for our minds to open to new pathways of thinking with the possibility of reducing associated anxieties. His tip for gaining perspective? Imagine how someone else might think or feel about a situation to help navigate our more overwhelming affective states.
Cultivating a little mindfulness or practicing visualization techniques are never bad ideas when dealing with anxiety.
"Imagine anxiety as ocean waves breaking on the shore,” said Michal T. Margolese, a hypnotherapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Allow the feelings to move through you as you release on each exhale."
When there’s so much uncertainty and fear outside, it’s no surprise that it feels safer to stay inside (and not just because we’re dealing with a contagious virus). To avoid stress and anxiety, it can feel simpler to avoid what we perceive to be the source of our stress, whether it’s working in an office, social events, talking to strangers, dating, or anything that is causing our reopening anxiety.
“When it comes to anxiety, we have three choices—challenge our thoughts, do an exposure, or practice a coping skill. I think all three options work really well with anxiety around reopening," said Kelly O'Sullivan, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. She suggested three options:
“I would normalize the anxiety and encourage people to embrace it,” said Meg Gitlin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Anxiety at its core is a protective, evolutionary response to perceived danger so it makes total sense that our anxiety would be higher than normal after the traumatic year we've endured. As a therapist who works with people to improve their relationships with loved ones, I would encourage and even practice with clients how to verbalize how they are feeling. Even if it's just to say that they don't know how they feel and are still figuring it out!”
We’re all going through this for the first time, navigating something new and scary. But even though we might feel differently about lockdown or reopening, one thing we have in common is that this is a shared experience—remember that you’re not alone.
“I think reopening anxiety is pervasive, and there's value in putting words to the experience, and hopefully not feeling so alone in it,” Meg said. “I would also encourage people to accept that their views and feelings will continue to shift and there's nothing wrong with that. After each ‘reopening’ experience (i.e. going to dinner with a group outside, or even visiting family) I would encourage people to be really curious about how they are feeling afterwards. By taking inventory of their reactions and talking about it in therapy, they can stay ahead of anything that may really trigger them and keep an eye on their anxiety so that it doesn't overwhelm them and create a phobic response.”
"There’s a Chinese proverb that says 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.' Getting back into the ‘real world’ after lockdown may feel as overwhelming as a thousand-mile journey. Rather than thinking about the whole path, it’s best if you can face your fears and start with one small step. Take a walk in the park. Meet up with a friend whom you haven’t seen in a while. Get a haircut. You will feel better when you get out of your own head. If working with a therapist or coach will help you get over the hurdle, reach out,” said Nancy, who meets her clients for walks around various NYC neighborhoods.
It is also okay to try re-entry, and decide that you are not ready yet. If you spend time with friends and feel uncomfortable, it is okay to say no next time, therapist and MyWellbeing community member Dahlia Mayerson wrote for Resilience Lab. It is also helpful to communicate your feelings and thoughts preemptively to friends and family so that people are all on the same page and can serve as supports for each other. If you find that someone is making you feel pressured, uncomfortable, or judged for your choices, it is important to address this.
"Just because things are going ‘back to normal’ doesn't mean you have to do things as you did before,” said Lauren Jessell, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “This is an opportunity to create a new life, one that feels uniquely good to you."
That doesn’t mean you need to add things to your plate. One thing that some people have felt over the past year is that, while life has often been lonely, some things have felt simpler.
“In returning to a ‘new normal,’ the best way to strategize what you do need to is to notice what you don’t need,” said Geraldine Anathan, a coach and MyWellbeing community member. “The good that has come from this past year is undoubtedly a deeper connection to your own true self, and as a result, an inner knowing of what is essential to your own unique measure of wellbeing. Carve out quiet time to shed behaviors or perceived obligations that no longer serve. Hold what is sacred, and give yourself permission to be changed. You deserve it!”
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Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.