The COVID-19 pandemic forced fundamental shifts in our everyday lives. But as restrictions ease throughout the country, we’re again facing a radical change — returning to life as we once knew it.
Reports show that feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness spiked in the early days of the pandemic. However, recent research from the American Psychological Association (APA) warns that this mental health crisis has evolved, as almost half of Americans are now anxious about getting back to pre-pandemic routines.
At its core, some anxiety is beneficial. It’s a built-in warning system that helps us to detect and respond to potential threats — and when it’s well managed, it can actually motivate us and help us perform at our best.
But maintaining an acute emotional state over time takes its toll. The past year has put many of us in a heightened state of alert, with our brains constantly looking out for new threats. And whether it’s restarting a morning commute or meeting friends in-person, any change — even a positive one — may feel threatening and disruptive.
Psychotherapist Kim Hertz points to socializing as an example. “The nervous system reacts when we introduce new stimuli,” she says. “For many people, there has not been much exposure to crowds, so now they may be a shock to the system.”
This effect is true for any adjustment to everyday life. Mental health professionals report that people are experiencing an anticipatory dread over:
• Interacting and engaging with coworkers, friends, and crowds
• The transition from working from home to an office environment
• Managing commutes, household duties, and family commitments
• Physical health and questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness
• The potential for new virus flare-ups
There’s also growing anxiety over what business-as-usual will actually look like after COVID-19. Health advice and guidance have changed frequently over the past year, as we’ve learned about COVID-19 and how to prevent and treat it. These frequent changes may be fueling anxiety — because it’s hard for us to imagine what the future will look like.
“We have to build up our emotional muscles to tolerate uncertainty,” says psychotherapist Meredith Prescott.
She explains that while avoidance may provide a temporary sense of relief, it’s not helpful in the long run. Avoiding what triggers anxiety — whether that’s people, places, or activities — reinforces in our mind that these things are threatening and dangerous, deepening the sense of fear.
To manage anxiety about life after the pandemic, experts recommend that you:
Training our emotional muscles is a process — one that starts with accepting your anxiety as a normal response to the situation we’re collectively experiencing.
“Oftentimes, the worst part of anxiety is not the anxiety itself, but the extra layer we add on by judging it, wrestling with it, and anticipating it,” says licensed counselor Brian O’Sullivan. “That is, we have anxiety about our anxiety.”
This process is important for parents to consider as well.
“Parents are experiencing anxiety now about how their kids will navigate in-person school,” says clinical psychologist Alissa Jerud. “And for those parents whose kids’ mental health has suffered as a result of the pandemic, they may worry that these effects could be long-lasting.”
She encourages parents to resist the urge to interrogate kids, searching for every detail of their day. Instead, show up ready to listen to what they choose to share.
“If your kids are struggling, validate their struggles and offer — don’t force — to help problem-solve the specific challenges they are facing,” she said.
“Don’t put expectations or pressure on yourself that everything needs to return to how you were performing or interacting a year ago,” says Hertz.
It's important to start slowly and build up to an everyday routine. Intentionally approaching safe but anxiety-provoking situations can ease the transition and give us a sense of control amidst uncertainty.
But it’s also important not to let go of the things that made us feel at ease during the pandemic. For example, exercise, meditation, and hobbies are all proven ways to relieve anxiety.
O’Sullivan recommends taking steps to recognize our thought patterns. When we debate or attempt to suppress negative thoughts, we amplify and extend the anxiety they cause.
Labeling is one technique for managing negative thought processes. Noticing and then naming anxious thoughts and emotions helps to strip away the influence they have over us.
“Often when we feel anxious, we have catastrophizing thoughts. We play out endless ‘what-if’ scenarios and try to find solutions to these unlikely events,” says O’Sullivan. “We convince ourselves that we’re problem-solving, when in fact we’re just spinning our wheels.”
COVID-19 required that we isolate ourselves. And isolation can fuel anxiety about interacting with other people.
We may try to mitigate anxiety by avoiding situations that trigger it. But by continuing to isolate from social situations, we validate this fear, making it increasingly difficult to regain social confidence.
Experts say to:
• Set and respect social boundaries that won’t overwhelm you
• Ease your way back into social situations
• Learn breathing exercises to manage stressful moments
If your anxiety and worry begin to interfere with daily life, consider working with a therapist to understand the root causes of anxiety and how to manage it.
Virtual care options can make this approach easier for many people. If you’re having difficulty managing pandemic-related anxiety and its effects, connect with a mental health professional at Carbon Health. We offer virtual appointments to suit your needs as you rebuild your routine after COVID-19 (currently available in California).
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.