Our art museum had a socially distanced, outdoor showing of “Labyrinth” recently: a perfect Friday night treat for our kids. They’ve been scared to go anywhere since the pandemic hit, especially our middle and youngest sons, but they’d walk barefoot over broken glass to see the Goblin King. Soon they were running wild over a mostly-empty plaza. I sat quietly in my lawn chair, a little stunned with re-entry anxiety. “You know you can take your mask off,” my husband said gently. “You’re vaccinated and no one’s anywhere near us, anyway.”
“It feels better on,” I said. “I like it on. I don’t want to take it off.”
He picked up my hand and didn’t mention it again.
My re-entry anxiety fluctuates. I’ve met friends for lunch outdoors without a mask; my husband and I have eaten inside a very large, very empty restaurant. But my kids and I mostly stay distanced. We don’t go to Target or the grocery store. I don’t want to take my babies to Target, even masked. My husband bought me (outdoor, distanced) concert tickets for my birthday, and I’m excited, but that excitement’s tempered: Large crowd. People lying about their vaccine status. Variants, always variants. What’s the Moderna efficacy rate? (It’s 94.1% effective at preventing COVID-19 after two doses, according to the CDC, but that six percent).
My Re-Entry Anxiety Isn’t Unique
I’m not alone. The American Psychological Academy found that, regardless of vaccine status, 49% of Americans are “uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction.” Fully half of us are worried about readjusting to life without COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s pretty normal right now to feel that way,” Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at APA, told Advisory.
According to Advisory, generally, people with re-entry anxiety can be loosely placed into two groups: those who are afraid of catching the virus and/or spreading it to others, and those who are worried that their social skills have degenerated, and who now fear social interaction. Then there’s the overlapping part of that Venn diagram, where I fall: scared I’ll catch some variant; scared I’ll catch COVID-19 and give it to my kids; scared my social skills, already affected by my neurodiversity, have eroded into abject rudeness.
Scientists say this is all normal. We’ve become habituated to a certain way of life: living mostly indoors, avoiding crowded spaces, staying away from people — for more than a year. That way of life has gone from difficult to … almost comforting. Yes, we miss so many things, like our friends and the movies and concerts, but we’re used to it now. No matter how much we mourned our changed circumstances, according to the American Association of Depression and Anxiety, our way of life was safe.
Suddenly, we’re shifting very quickly from that safety to the unknown. And it’s normal to fear the unknown.
How To Cope
If you find your re-entry anxiety excessive, unduly interfering with your daily life, or extremely distressing, you should contact a therapist. However, most of us will deal with re-entry anxiety on our own. Here are some ways to tamp it down:
Remember what you can control. According to Self, many people become anxious because they feel out of control in a situation. It can be helpful to make two lists before an outing: one list detailing things under your control (if you mask, for example) and one detailing everything you can’t control (if other people are vaccinated). Consciously choose to let go of that second list as you remember that you’re empowered by the first.
Set boundaries. The Wall Street Journal recommends that you decide what your comfort zone is. It shouldn’t be “stay inside all the time,” but it doesn’t need to be “vaxxed, waxed, and ready to party.” Maybe you’re comfortable dining outdoors, or seeing vaccinated friends inside, but not eating inside or gathering indoors unmasked. Wherever you are is okay. Explain your boundaries to others, and be firm. These aren’t negotiable. These aren’t up for discussion. These are what you need to feel comfortable and safe, and you can assert yourself about them, even if they are stricter than CDC guidelines.
You can work your way up to CDC guidelines. But real talk: you’ve just lived through one of the most traumatic events in American history, during which other traumatic events unfolded. BIPOC were certainly more affected by Black Lives Matter protests. But no matter who you are, don’t disregard your unprocessed rage and helplessness over George Floyd’s death and the ensuing police brutality. I sobbed while I watched smoke rise from burned police cars downtown: for Floyd, for his family, for my Black friends, for our country, for my journalist friends in the thick of that violence. And all of us watched in horror as treasonous right-wing nutjobs stormed our Capitol building.
Your re-entry anxiety? Totally justified. Own it, meet it where it is, and make others do the same.
Take small steps. Don’t do everything at once. As The Lily says, you need to take this in increments — all of us do, but especially those with re-entry anxiety. Don’t plan to meet friends three days in a row. Plan lunch one weekend. Plan dinner the next weekend. Don’t expect your outings to last as long as they did in the past: you may find them, while fun, psychologically draining. It’s hard work to people when you haven’t peopled in a long time! So if you feel tired afterwards, that’s okay, too. Small steps. But every small step moves in the right direction, and those small steps together add up to bigger ones.
Make a bucket list. A bucket list of Things To Do Post-COVID-19 can help you push past your re-entry anxiety and go back into the world, says Self. I have two different restaurants in town I want to hit; several out of town I want to visit; a few concerts that look fun; a few nearby cities to see; in-laws to visit. This even works with kids: my youngest son wants to visit the children’s museum.
Journal, exercise, or practice mindfulness. To help with your re-entry anxiety, find a self-help practice that works for you and run with it. Writing down your feelings for fifteen minutes can help: I used to write my anxieties on paper and stuff them in a designated “worry doll” — a shockingly good help (and I have an anxiety disorder). My husband finds that same tension release in exercise. Mindfulness, or being present in the moment, and meditation, can also facilitate calm and help you with your transition into this new normal.
Let yourself grieve your old life. Many of us have very different lives now. We’ve lost people to COVID-19, through sickness or estrangement; we may have changed jobs, lost them, switched our children’s educational situation… the list goes on. But life likely doesn’t look like it did in December 2019. It doesn’t look like we expected life to look like now. Let yourself mourn that. It’s okay to be sad that your entire life has been upended. You may find that you can’t move forward until you grieve properly, and only when you grieve can you accept your new normal.
We’ve all been traumatized to some degree or another. If you have re-entry anxiety, acknowledge it, then give yourself space and time to cope. It may take a while for you to “come back to normal,” and your normal may not look like other people’s. Give yourself permission for that. It’s okay if you need time, help, and space to recover from COVID-19 life. You’re not alone.