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IBX Insights

Post-Pandemic Social Anxiety

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines may be the key to ending this pandemic. But ironically, the prospect of a gradual return to more normal life can cause anxiety as well.

Most of us get anxious from time to time. Some of us have a chronic anxiety disorder, where this type of unease is more constant. It can be quite debilitating.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been very anxiety provoking for all of us. We’ve had to adapt to unfamiliar routines, and worry about our health and the health of our loved ones.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 infection can experience a variety of mental/behavioral health after effects, with anxiety being the most common.

Sometimes, knowing what to expect can help you feel more prepared and less anxious. So let’s spend a little time thinking about what we’re likely to experience coming out of isolation. That may enable us to feel more ready to face it.

Relearning How to Communicate “Normally”

Some of us were lucky enough to be able to work from home. We spent the last year communicating with our coworkers, family, and friends through our phones and computers. Most of our children used these same tools to attend school remotely.

Even people who couldn’t work remotely, may still have changed the way they socialized with others.

These electronic communications have been a precious lifeline. They’ve made it easier to cope with the isolation that the pandemic has caused. And now we’ve adapted our communication skills to suit these digital mediums. Have we lost some other skills along the way?

Body language makes up a much larger piece of human communication than most people realize. And with so many of our interactions taking place via video, our body language skills have become rusty. We may have to relearn them.

Personal space is something we’ll have to relearn too. I’m talking about how close you would normally stand or sit next to someone if there wasn’t a pandemic. It’s knowing who to shake hands with, who to hug.

We all used to know these things without thinking about it. We instinctively felt more comfortable being physically closer to, or farther from, a person depending on our relationship with them. Now we may have to dust off these skills.

This will be complicated by the “social distancing” we’ve learned during the pandemic. As we start coming out of our homes again, will it feel strange getting closer than six feet to someone? Will we even know how close to stand to each other anymore?

Interacting with people in person may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but it will come back to all of us before too long.

What Else Should We Expect on Reentry?

Anxiety about COVID-19 safety will still color our interactions with others outside the home. We won’t be able to tell who’s vaccinated, and may not be sure about the etiquette for asking about it. They won’t be able to tell whether we’re vaccinated. There will be some stress involved in deciding what feels safe in any situation. And we may also find ourselves worrying whether we are making other people feel unsafe.

We’ll have to face the consequences of our pandemic survival behaviors. Maybe we coped with the stress through increased alcohol or substance use. Maybe our bodies changed, and we’re criticizing ourselves about it. Maybe we put off important health screenings and medical procedures. We’ll need to reckon with these things now. It’s important to talk with your doctor if you are struggling with maintaining or returning to a healthy lifestyle.

Coping with loss will also be an issue for a lot of us. Many of us lost family and friends over the past year, due to COVID-19 or for other reasons. As of February, it’s estimated that more than 37,000 children under 17 had lost at least one parent to COVID-19.

In many cases we weren’t able to be with our loved ones during their last moments because of the pandemic. We weren’t even able to attend their funerals. We carry this grief, and lack of emotional closure, with us everywhere we go.

But we’ve lost more than people, and we’ve missed more than funerals.

We’ve lost jobs, businesses, homes.

And how many of our weddings either got postponed, or took place on Zoom? How many of our kids had to have Zoom graduations, confirmations, or bar/bat mitzvahs? How many teens had to miss their junior or senior proms?

We have every right to grieve the loss of these people, possessions, and rites of passage. And we need to grieve. Please seek support if you need it — whether from a friend or family member, your religious community, a local support group, or a mental health professional.

Returning to Our in-Person Jobs

Soon we may walk back into our office buildings for the first time in more than a year. Will we remember where to sit in a meeting room? How close to other people we should sit? How to get the speaker’s attention so we can ask a question?

How comfortable will we feel being in elevators with other people? Using public restrooms? Will we be wearing masks? Will everyone else? How will all this work, exactly?

Suppose your employer says you can work from home at your discretion (or your boss’s discretion). Will it really be okay to keep working from home? Or will you seem less dedicated because you’re not physically in the office?

With all of these stresses, is it any wonder that many people are a little uneasy about going back to working in an office?

You have the right to feel safe at work. If you’re concerned about what your employer is doing to prevent COVID-19 transmission, bring it to the attention of your supervisor or your human resources department.

Commuting will be a pain point too. We’re used to “going to work” by simply booting up our computers. “Going to a meeting” has been as easy as clicking a link in our calendars.

As offices reopen, suddenly we’ll have to spend time getting to work again, and parking our vehicles. We may have to physically travel from one meeting or client to the next. It won’t be instantaneous anymore.

And on top of that, some of us will have to worry about the safety of commuting on public transportation. Up until now, ridership has been fairly light, so there has been plenty of room to spread out on buses and trains. But the more people go back to work, the more crowded these transportation options will be.

Reentry for People With Anxiety Disorders

For many folks who have an anxiety disorder, treatment involves experiencing controlled exposures to the things they’re anxious about. This is stressful but necessary. Gradually they learn, through experience, that whatever had made them so anxious will not really harm them. The bad thing that they were so afraid of won’t happen. And even if it does, they’ll survive.

Being holed up at home because of the pandemic has made many people feel less anxious. They didn’t have to face a lot of the things they feared anymore, such as certain social situations.

But this is exactly the opposite of what most people should be doing to overcome their anxieties. And with reentry, these individuals may be very anxious about having to face their fears again.

What Strategies Can We Use to Minimize Our Reentry Anxiety and Stress?

  • Don’t go it alone. Acknowledge your stress about reentry. Then get support from your family and friends. Let’s all help each other understand and come to terms with the new normal.
  • Live in the moment. This is something we’ve gotten good at during the quarantine. We learned to pause to appreciate the pleasures of being at home — the yard, the deck, the neighbors. Use those mindfulness skills to help you stop stressing about the past or the future. And savor the things outside the home that you’ll now get to do again!
  • Take things slowly — especially those things you may not have done much in the past year. Like exercising, driving, or beginning a new relationship.
  • Practice compassion, empathy, and patience. People may not be experiencing reentry the same way you are. They may be struggling with their own pain and anger that you can’t see. Try to be remember this, and go easy on them. The way you interact with them can make them feel either better or worse. It’s in your hands. Be kind.
  • Also have compassion for yourself. So you had a little extra chocolate ice cream this past year to cope with stress. Or you didn’t do all the exercising/yoga/meditation you planned. Forgive yourself. This has been an incredibly hard year, and we all did whatever we had to do to cope. Independence members can use our Achieve Well-being program to support them in self-care.
  • Keep your eyes open. With so much reentry stress, it’s possible that people around you may be impulsive, volatile, even dangerous. Be prepared for situations to possibly get dicey without warning.
  • Feeling anxious? Reach out for help if you need it.

Finally, remember how resilient you are. If you’re reading this article, you’ve survived what may be the biggest global cataclysm of our lifetime. If you had what it took to get this far, you’ve also got what it takes to face what comes next.

Dario V. LaRocca, M.D.

I have been a medical director at Independence Blue Cross for over 15 years and have maintained a private practice in Psychiatry for over 30 years. My interest in mental health and its integration with physical health has been my life’s work. My role at IBX allows me to continue this work and be a psychiatric liaison to health services, providers, and hospital systems, as well as provide clinical guidance to programs at IBX.