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Coping with the Return to “Normal”

Velizar Nikiforov, M.A., LCPC
• July 23, 2021

After more than a year of pandemic stress; social isolation; and overlapping demands of work, home and school, many of us have been eagerly awaiting a return to normal. As the pace of vaccinations picked up in the early half of 2021 and states and municipalities relaxed restrictions, that return to a semblance of normality is upon us.

This brought a sigh of relief and optimism for many. But for some of us, the possibility of resuming activities isn’t generating joy or excitement. Instead, we are noticing a sense of foreboding, a familiar speeding up of the heart rate, clenching of the stomach, and thoughts of threat and danger — in other words: anxiety.

This might be surprising. After all, isn’t back-to-normal what we’ve been hoping for? Yet, those anxious feelings are also surprisingly common. According to an American Psychological Association survey, about half of Americans are uncomfortable about going back to living life as they did pre-pandemic, and a similar number feel uneasy about readjusting to in-person interactions. Some refer to these feelings as “reentry anxiety.” Understanding why that anxiety might be happening and what we can do about it can help us prepare and cope with the transitions ahead.

Why might anxiety increase with society reopen?

The reasons we felt anxiety over the past year and a half were all too obvious. To understand why the approaching shifts in our daily lives are generating similar feelings, it helps to identify common drivers of anxiety, including those aspects of our quarantine year that were tailor-made to fuel anxiety: uncertainty and socially mandated avoidance.

Uncertainty and the “what if” questions

One of the biggest triggers for anxiety is uncertainty. Considering an immediate future that we can’t quite predict opens room for our thoughts to pose “what if” questions. This is true in normal circumstances — think of the “Sunday scaries,” the anxious anticipation of another work week and its unpredictable challenges — and was all the more so during a year in which all plans and routines were upended as we constantly processed new and alarming information. As we look toward the future, it’s understandable that we may feel less confident and more doubtful of new plans and predictions, especially as rules and restrictions continue to evolve. That uncertainty turbocharges our anxiety.

Avoidance: We avoid what we fear, and we fear what we avoid

When our anxious thoughts have identified a situation as dangerous, it makes complete sense to change our behavior. Avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation — whether that involves cancelling an airplane flight, or backing out of plans to go to a party with unfamiliar people — brings immediate relief. This dynamic explains why there were reports of individuals feeling better during lockdown. We were all mandated to avoid large parts of our lives, and for some, this meant not encountering certain anxiety triggers. The short-term relief brought by avoidance comes at a cost: The next time we encounter the same situation, we are likely to be sensitized and feel increased fear. Our brains are likely to automatically trigger the avoidance behavior as we try to reduce our fear; after all, it “worked” the last time. Over time, situations we avoid start seeming more and more dangerous, as our brain recalls more and more examples when not doing something resulted in relief and staying safe. The drawback to this strategy is that we don’t have a chance to learn whether the danger was there in the first place or whether danger that was once present may have dissipated.

How to deal with heightened anxiety

With a year’s worth of avoidance and uncertainty and our brains primed to search for dangers, it makes sense that heightened anxiety will pop up in places it previously did not. For many of us, it’s been over a year since we saw family and friends face-to-face, rode the subway, went to the office or sat inside a restaurant or movie theater. As activities are once again permitted, we might rationally understand that the danger has diminished, but the fearful parts of our brain will nevertheless react based on the year’s worth of learning. Fortunately, if we are prepared and aware, there are ways to change how we relate to anxiety that can make for a smoother reentry experience.

Prepare yourself for anxiety, and shift your attitude

Experiencing the physical sensations of anxiety — muscle tension, restlessness, racing heart — can feel scary in and of itself, particularly if you happen to be higher in anxiety sensitivity. If we interpret these sensations as indicative of danger, we fall for one of anxiety’s tricks; believing that feeling anxious means there really is something to fear. 

To get out of this trap, we can shift our attitude towards anxiety. We can view it as an occasionally helpful but overly sensitive alarm system. If you happen to notice anxious sensations, remind yourself that this is a sign of your body preparing to protect you, that it’s a normal process, and that it will pass on its own. Tell yourself that simply feeling anxious does not mean that you’re in danger and that you are doing things you rationally know to be reasonably safe. 

In fact, the most helpful way to prepare for anxiety is not to view it as a feared, terrible experience to be avoided, but rather with patience and even curiosity. This is likely the first pandemic you have lived through. How will your body and mind react to your reemergence into the world? What will it feel like? How long will it last? This kind of curious attention is usually referred to as “mindfulness,” but it does not require a formal meditation practice to implement, only focusing on what is happening in each moment without getting caught up in judgments or thoughts about the future or past.

Talk back to your anxious mind

We know many things are different as we reenter the world. Socializing norms look different and may vary. Some of our friends will be ready to hug; others may remain reticent. Some public health rules, such as mask protocols in restaurants, may change as public health guidance evolves. Some employers are requiring returns to the office while others are continuing work-from-home policies, and many are in the process of deciding. All of these changes and inconsistencies mean uncertainty, which our anxious brain will spin into “what if” scenarios of potential danger.

These scenarios could involve post-quarantine socializing (“what if I’m awkward?”), resuming in-person work (“what if work makes me go back and I miss being at home?”), or other loved ones (“what if my son has fallen behind because of Zoom school?”). If such questions and scenarios are coming up over and over, you can start by asking whether this is a real-life, actual problem that has happened, or a hypothetical possibility. If it’s the former, sit down and brainstorm potential ways to problem-solve. If not, consider whether your anxious brain is focused on a single, worst-case scenario. Then ask yourself what the best case scenario might be, as well as what’s most likely. All of these approaches will work best when written down. Getting thoughts out of our head and onto paper gives us critical distance.

Gradually reduce avoidance with exposure therapy techniques

Above and beyond all other techniques, the most effective treatment for anxiety is exposure therapy. If you’ve ever seen a parent at the beach slowly coax their nervous child into the water for the first time, you have observed the learning process behind exposure in action. Just as avoidance teaches our brains that the avoided situation is dangerous, gradually re-engaging can help us learn that dangers are less likely or more manageable than our brains assume and that we can tolerate our own anxious emotions. If you anticipate returning to the office and are feeling anxious, a gradual process of exposure may involve taking a drive on your commute route over a weekend, coming in briefly on a workday to prepare your workstation, or even just visualizing what coming in to the office and resuming work might look like. Whatever you anxiety is focused on, a gradual and patient resumption of the activities involved will reduce the intensity of the emotion.

Radically accept what we have lost

Even as we transition back towards activities that have been out of bounds, we are not going to totally return to the pre-pandemic status quo. We are transitioning to a world that has been reshaped over the past year and aa half. According to Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), radical acceptance “rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” Accepting our post-pandemic world does not necessarily mean we approve of it, but rather we will continue to move forward regardless of how we feel.

It is important, though, to grieve what was lost. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are all stages of grief, but contrary to popular belief, there is no linear progression through stages of grief, making acceptance difficult to achieve. Once achieved, an opportunity for change and resilience follows.

You’re not alone

Finally, handling the anxiety, fear, sadness and all the other challenges of this extraordinary year requires us all to be kind to ourselves, acknowledging that there is a lot of pain and difficulty we have been forced to handle. That attitude of kindness may be easier to stick with if we also remember that everyone else is going through similar difficulties. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), individuals seeking out mental health services has increased by 52% since 2019, and 78% of adults polled by the APA reported declining mental health due to the pandemic. Simultaneously, mental health awareness is on the rise with an upward trend of mental health service utilization over the past ten years. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please reach out to a mental health provider.

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Velizar Nikiforov, M.A., LCPC

Coordinator, Cognitive Behavioral Therapies Program

Mr. Nikiforov is a staff therapist at the Family Institute. He specializes in working with individuals experiencing problems with anxiety, worry, obsessive compulsive disorder or depression using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment that research supports as the most effective approach for these issues.