Back in April 2020, we fantasized about what it would be like for lockdown restrictions to lift, and go back to lives we once knew. Now we're approaching a majority of the country being vaccinated and the CDC has released new guidance for vaccinated adults, reopening is at last upon us, and it’s time to think through what it means to re-enter our communities. For many of us, though, there isn't a way back: only a new path forward.
And with that reopening comes a whole new set of risk calculations and anxiety-provoking decisions: does it stress you out to think of being in a crowded restaurant again? What about seeing your friends, and navigating those “to-hug-or-not-to-hug” interactions? Or maybe you really enjoyed working from home, and need to recalibrate for a tentative return to office life.
Reopening anxiety is real, and we’re here to help you deal with it. Here are 13 tips intended to help you comfortably and intentionally kick off your post-pandemic life.
1. Challenge thoughts that might hold you back from enjoying the new normal
Anxiety can negatively impact our thought processes: it’s known to make our brains spiral, deny alternative possibilities, and give us tunnel vision. These phenomenons are called cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns, and they may pop into your mind as you start to think about leaving your home and reentering social situations.
To combat cognitive distortions, challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself what the evidence is behind your thinking and if it’s based in reality. Focus on the facts -- and be compassionate with yourself if you realize that your thinking patterns have gotten warped!
Here are some examples of cognitive distortions to keep an eye out for:
- Catastrophizing: This cognitive distortion leads its thinker to the worst possible outcomes in a situation. A person catastrophizing over reopening will think, “Well, if I go out for a coffee, I’ll probably catch COVID. And then I’ll give it to my mother, she’ll get so sick she’ll need to be hospitalized. And then we’ll lose the house because of the medical bills.” By predicting a catastrophic outcome, it’s likely that you’ll avoid putting yourself anywhere near that situation – and may lose out on a perfectly safe, enjoyable afternoon at a coffee shop as a result.
- “Should” thinking: “Should” thinking is when a thinker emphasizes what they should do in the situation, rather than what feels comfortable or what they want to do. Imagine someone getting ready to go back to the office. They feel really anxious about safety because they have asthma – yet, they think, “My boss is expecting me, I really should go back to the office.” By thinking of what they “should” do in a situation, they don’t stay true to what feels safe to them. Ironically, this person will likely feel additional anxiety in the office, which can detrimentally affect their job performance.
- Overgeneralization: When someone overgeneralizes, they assign words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” or “no one” to situations. They might think, “No one is wearing their mask, so everyone is going to get sick.” Painting such broad strokes leaves little room for nuances or alternative possibilities that can help someone fully experience and enjoy the present moment far more.
2. Learn to gently embrace exposure anxiety
Having anxiety about the safety of spending time with friends or getting back into the office is only natural, but it can be important process in order to find more ease in your daily life. By gradually exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations, you may find that although your anxiety is coming from a real place, your response to it doesn’t have to be debilitating.
In a therapy modality called Exposure and Response Prevention, therapists work with clients to slowly build up their tolerance to their anxiety triggers. If a client is afraid of spiders, the therapist starts by asking the client to visualize a spider. Next, the therapist shows the client a picture of a spider, all the while supporting them and helping them realize that there is no danger in seeing a picture of a spider. They’ll work their way towards exposing the client to a real spider. With each step towards experiencing the real thing, the client’s anxiety response decreases as they become more tolerant. The client examines their anxiety and learns that it is a sign they’re uncomfortable – but they don’t need to be uncomfortable.
This is a technique that could help assuage reopening anxiety, too. By starting with a visualization of what it would look like, feel like, sound like to go shopping again at the mall, you’ll prepare yourself for the real thing. Take a compassionate, nonjudgmental look at your emotions and any anxieties that come up. By embracing this anxiety as a very real response to what was only recently a scary situation, understand that going to the mall is no longer as unsafe as it used to be.
3. Master your own set of coping skills
No time is better than now to practice (and master!) your coping skills. Coping skills are the mental and physical tools that we use to calm down, feel comfortable, or process through heightened emotions. In the face of anxiety or distress, engaging in coping behaviors helps you feel more at peace.
Some examples of coping skills include mindfulness practices like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or aromatherapy. Coping skills can also look like knitting, calling a friend, or writing in a journal. Anything that helps you take a break from an emotional reaction or process through what’s going on can be helpful.
You can practice coping skills before you head out the door or while you’re out in the community. They’re helpful to prevent anxiety as well as quell your anxiety in-the-moment. By determining what types of coping skills work best for you, you’ll be able to lean on them whenever you need.
4. Listen to your body for cues, so you can practice self-soothing techniques accordingly
Sometimes our bodies register our feelings before our brains do: by paying attention to how your body feels in the present moment, you can begin to modulate your emotional and behavioral response. Through the practice of mindfulness, you begin to recognize your emotional state before you become overwhelmed, so you have a chance to exercise your coping skills or exit the situation.
Listening to your body as you reenter might look like any of the following techniques:
- Body scan: Mentally scan up or down your body, focusing your attention on each body part. How does that body part feel? What sensations are present? Are you holding tension in any of your muscles?
- Progressive relaxation: If you do feel anxious or have tension in your body, start at your toes with tensing and then relaxing. Do this with each muscle one-by-one up your body. By the end, all muscles will feel more relaxed.
- Keeping a body journal: As you visit different places or situations in the community, jot down how your body feels in each location. This way, you’ll be able to see any patterns. Are you relaxed at the grocery store but tense at the office? This insight will help you figure out your comfort zones!
By placing awareness on your body, you’ll learn that your body validates your feelings – if you’re feeling physically anxious, chances are that you’re mentally anxious as well. After you have body awareness, the next step is to learn how to keep your body calm as you navigate through stressful situations.
5. Practice self-compassion during difficult moments
There’s no sugar-coating it: Getting back out into your community after the pandemic will be a challenge in some ways. And while it’s entirely possible for you to feel comfortable re-entering society after over a year of isolation, stress, grief, and change, it may also take time and it may also take intentionality.
There will be times when it’s easy to see your friends, but there will also be times when it’s difficult. You may notice that anxiety creeps into your mind and body when you aren’t expecting it. Just because you felt comfortable seeing a movie with a friend last week doesn’t mean that every subsequent outing will be comfortable. Our emotions change based on so many factors and part of navigating re-opening is paying attention to those emotions, validating them, and taking it easy on ourselves.
To practice self-compassion, find a way to communicate to yourself that you are loved, trusted, and respected. This could look like:
- Affirmations: Whether talking to the mirror or simply stating these affirmations in your thoughts, practice telling yourself that you’re doing a good job. You can also tell yourself, “I’ve worked really hard on staying safe.” Or try this one: “I’m valuing my mental health by giving myself a break.” Anything that makes you feel positive about yourself and how you’re re-entering is a great affirmation to say daily (or multiple times per day!).
- Visualizations: Visualizations are a way to get creative in your mental health work. Without reality bounding our creativity, we can visualize any situation to promote self-love and compassion. Try visualizing giving yourself a gold medal after going through something particularly difficult. You might also visualize giving yourself a hug, a high five, or a pat on the back. Use your imagination!
- Treating yourself: There’s no getting around the difficulty of starting up our lives again post-pandemic. Give yourself a treat or celebration for taking steps towards working through your anxiety. An extra coffee at your favorite local coffee shop or a new plant are two ways to show yourself some gratitude.
By showing yourself patience, kindness, and compassion, you’ll find more grace as you figure out what the new chapter of your life looks like. It will be scary -- and that’s normal! But you’re working through that fear and for that, you are strong.
6. Take it at a pace that feels right to you
Despite months of waiting for the day we can all go maskless, it will take time to adjust to being out in the community again. It’s important to take it slow – baby-step by baby-step – because change takes time to feel comfortable. Depending on your personality and what’s helpful for you, you may feel comfortable going straight back to work like you did before the pandemic. For others, taking it in increments will be vital towards developing a sense of safety and trust in society again.
Just because the pandemic hit communities quickly and furiously doesn’t mean that has to be the way our re-entry looks.
To better understand what steps to take over time, figure out your comfort zone. Ask yourself these questions:
- What am I afraid of?
- Is there a specific place that makes me feel uncomfortable?
- Who do I feel safe with? Who do I not feel safe with? Why?
When thinking through your answers, consider all settings you might come across: home, work, school, public transit, shops, and more. Your comfort levels may change in each setting or even vary across time (there may even be times you have to take a step sideways - and that’s okay!). By developing awareness of your comfort levels, you can pick out what steps feel safe and which ones you need to build up to.
7. Use visualization exercises
Visualization is an effective and simple tool to use to practice feeling comfortable being out in the community. By visualizing what it’ll be like to go back to school, work, or shops again, you get a sense of how it will make you feel.
To practice, pick a setting to imagine. Place yourself in the middle of that setting. Consider the following:
- What do you see?
- What sounds do you hear?
- Who is also there? What is it like to be near them?
- What does it feel like to be there?
- How does your body feel in that space?
- What thoughts come to you as you start to go through the setting?
Using your imagination to add details is a trial-run for your brain and body. If it’s difficult for you to picture what it would be like, try looking up images online and placing yourself in what you see.
8. Determine what’s in your control — and let go of the rest
One of the most striking emotional features of the pandemic was loss of control. Because of the nature of COVID-19, our lives became unpredictable. While we could control where we went and who we saw, we could not control others’ behaviors. Many of us also found we were unable to control our emotional reactions to such unprecedented events, too.
As you navigate your social anxiety during re-opening, determine what’s in your control and what’s out of your control. You can control your exposure to other people, for example; however, you cannot control everything that happens around you. To maintain an inner feeling of comfort or security, you may need to let go of what’s out of your control.
To manage your emotional reaction to being in social settings again, draw upon your coping skills. If you start to feel overwhelmed, upset, or afraid, figure out ways to remove yourself from the situation. This may also be an opportunity to practice relaxation skills. As humans, we crave control (over ourselves and others).
The pandemic may have taught many that we have less control than we thought, but that doesn’t mean we have zero control. We have control over our routines, for example, so create a comfortable routine that’s safe and healthy for you.
9. Reconnect with your inner confidence to reduce social anxiety
Finding confidence from within yourself (and not from other people’s validation) will be key to feeling comfortable around other people. Because we spent so much time by ourselves the past year, it’s natural to feel anxious in social settings. Not only have we spent over a year trying to stay six feet apart from each other to make sure that everyone is safe, but we’ve also spent over a year socializing in a completely different way than before.
With all meetings and hangouts moved to an online space, we met people and connected with them from the safety of our own homes. We’ve had no practice being face-to-face with people in a long while, so it’s certainly understandable why our confidence might feel rocky with the prospect of in-person events.
Finding confidence looks different for everyone. For some people, using affirmations (“I am competent, I am kind”) are helpful. Others think back to times when they tackled challenging tasks and remind themselves of their ability. Whatever it looks like for you, be sure to consider all of your strengths and what you bring to the table.
With confidence, entering social settings will feel comfortable -- and you can relax and have a good time.
10. Take as many breaks from socializing as you need
Taking breaks from social activities promotes mental sustainability. We’re out of practice with socializing (at least in-person), so you may feel overwhelmed at times. Even if you’re hanging out with your closest friends or family members, you may still need a timeout to breathe.
Needing a break doesn’t indicate that you aren’t “doing well” in a social setting or that you aren’t a good friend. It means that you’re listening to your body and mind. Listening to those needs is a huge step towards taking care of yourself.
Don’t know if you need a break from socializing? Here are some signs to look for that indicate a break may be helpful:
- You feel exhausted after each social interaction, even the small ones.
- You drag your feet on the way to an event because you don’t really want to go.
- When you’re home, you don’t even want to look at your phone because you’re worried someone else will text you an invitation.
- You quickly get irritated at small inconveniences, even those that have nothing to do with socializing.
- You feel burnt out, like you’ve been burning the candle at both ends.
If any of these sound familiar, it’s time to take a break from seeing people or being out in your community.
11. Be patient in navigating social and political tension
One lasting effect of pandemic times is the amount of tension in our country. It’s likely that the many people you spoke with over the past year were people you either work with or chose to engage with. Getting back out there means interacting with strangers. Potentially, these strangers have different opinions, viewpoints, and ideas than you do. Being able to recognize and navigate tension patiently will help you deal with social anxiety during reopening.
We now know way more about COVID-19 than back in March 2020 when it started affecting millions of people across the United States and beyond. Yet knowing the facts about it – and being on what’s (hopefully) the other side of things – doesn’t completely eradicate many people’s anger, frustration, or disappointment over a year spent inside and away from loved ones. This is especially true across political lines and is something to navigate carefully – for your own preservation.
If you come across someone (either a stranger or someone that you know) who has different ideas than you, here are some ways to approach the tension and manage the conflict:
- Speak from a place of “I”: A common conflict management tool, speaking only about your own experiences avoids the generalizations that often fuel the fire of disagreements. By using only “I” statements (“I feel angry when I'm not consulted before making plans"), you’re giving facts that are indisputable.
- Consider both sides: As hard as it is sometimes to think there’s merit in the other side of certain topics, keeping an open mind may give you a glimpse of what the other person thinks or feels. You don’t have to accept the other side, but it’s good practice to at least consider it. Ideally, both parties involved in a conflict will do this.
- Lean on empathy: Especially in conflicts with friends and family, finding empathy is important to maintaining relationships despite differences. Think about why they feel that way or believe in what they do.
- Know when to exit: If the conflict continues despite your best efforts to keep it under control, it may be time to exit the conversation. If the conversation isn’t going anywhere productive, it’s not worth your effort to stay in a negative space.
- Practice self-compassion: Arguing with others (or even being in situations with tension) is never fun. Be sure to take care of yourself after being in such a setting. By attempting to navigate the tension, you’re showing you strength as a person who is still learning how to be out in society again!
12. Determine and advocate for your COVID comfort levels
It will take some trial-and-error for you to gauge your post-pandemic comfort levels. Do you feel safe being around people maskless inside? If not, set a boundary with your friends. Does it make you anxious to be at work without the whole office being vaccinated? Let your boss know and see if there’s a way to make it happen.
It can be difficult to advocate for what you need to feel safe and comfortable. Everyone will have different comfort levels when it comes to COVID safety. Know that during re-opening, there’s no “right” way to feel. Everyone had different experiences during the pandemic, so the more people speaking up about needing further precautions, the more likely reopening will go slower – and more comfortably for those who need more time to readjust.
13. Seek support from a therapist
Re-opening is a major transition for all of us. We’re about to figure out what “the new normal” entails. There will be moments where we must face our fears. We’ll need to practice self care and advocate for what we need. If you find that you seek additional support during re-opening, finding a therapist is a great next step.
Whether you need guidance on building your coping skills, figuring out your comfort levels, developing boundaries with others, navigating conflict with those around you, or you want to use this as an opportunity for self-reflection, Zencare makes it easy to find a therapist who's right for you. By including introductory videos and a simple way to schedule calls with therapists in your area, we give you the chance to find a good match in therapist.
From the Zencare team, we wish you a safe, comfortable re-opening.