How To Deal With Unexpected Anxiety About Life Post-Pandemic
As it turns out, my headspace makes sense for a number of psychologically backed reasons. For starters, our nerves are collectively shot from contending with a year's worth of successive traumas, so not letting ourselves get too attached to the prospect of a return to the "before times" is a matter of self-preservation. "It's understandable if people are anxious about what might happen next," says Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "It will take a while to believe that maybe this is the part of the story when things get better."
In other words, hope is a scary thing to have. Considering we've been burnt by hope in the recent past (remember when we thought we'd be in lockdown for just a couple of weeks and then just a couple of months?), and as worries about a new strain of the virus that renders the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines less effective grow, it seems hard to believe that further setbacks won't present.
"The mere thought of yet another slew of changes is disconcerting." —Carla Manly, PhD
But fear of disappointment isn't the only factor propelling my post-pandemic anxiety. Our brains also tend to prize the familiar over the unfamiliar, and believe it or not, pandemic life is now somewhat comfortable to us. "The uncertainty of post-pandemic life can be a substantial source of stress and anxiety; we have no idea what life will look like when the pandemic is over—whenever that day will be," says Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. "The mere thought of yet another slew of changes is disconcerting."
And though the pandemic has been traumatic, devastating, and tragic, it also hasn't been—and this is difficult to admit—all bad for a number folks, specifically those like me, who have been fortunate enough to be able to safely quarantine at home. "The benefits have been tremendous for some people," says Dr. Manly. "Working from home, having a quieter lifestyle, and spending less [money] on eating out and travel are just a few of the unexpected positive rewards that some people have enjoyed."
Furthermore, there are also things some may be afraid to regain. "Some of us introverts have been making the most of a lot of time alone, and we're about to get dropped back into a very social world," says Dr. Daramus. "Others might have been able to use social distancing to avoid toxic people. There will definitely be a little nostalgia [for quarantine life] when you're in an office with a passive-aggressive coworker or something like that."
And, as psychotherapist Meghan Watson points out, introverts and extroverts alike who have spent most of the past year in isolation are out of practice with in-person socializing, which may lead to newfound or exacerbated social anxiety. In fact, even just imagining a world outside our bunkers may be overwhelming, says Dr. Daramus. After all, for many, pre-pandemic life was significantly busier or, at least, more diverse in terms of daily activities and interactions. Now if you're winding down at 8 p.m., for example, the prospect of having a dinner reservation at that time—even if you once did so regularly—may feel intense and anxiety-provoking.
"We're going to have to deal with a lot of loss. There will be social events where someone is missing, stores that have closed, and milestones you've missed." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD
Eventual emergence from our present survival mode promises to be bittersweet for the opposite reason, too. "We're going to have to deal with a lot of loss," says Dr. Daramus. "There will be social events where someone is missing, stores that have closed, and milestones you've missed." These things will serve as reminders that life will never be the same as it was pre-pandemic, and you may have some anxiety around the anticipation of this realization.
With all of these factors considered, it seems we should do something about our post-pandemic anxiety as time inches forward in unpredictable ways. Below, experts advise on various coping strategies to get through, no matter what lies in wait.
How to cope with anxiety around the idea of life post-pandemic
1. Validate your emotions
Many of us tend to label feelings as either good or bad, but Dr. Manly advises against doing so with your emotions surrounding post-pandemic anxiety. "One of the most generous things we can do for ourselves when 'negative' feelings arise is to simply make space for the feelings without judgment," she says.
Licensed clinical social worker and therapist, America Allen, LCSW agrees, noting that it's important to remember that there's no "right way" to handle things as we slowly move into a post-pandemic world. "We will all be unlearning and relearning how we want to navigate this space," she says. "Even though this virus has shown us some terrible things, there are also a lot of folx experiencing gratitude for this time—and there is room for both."
Instead of judging or shaming yourself for being conflicted, anxious, or even distressed, Dr. Manly advises simply noticing your emotions. In other words, let them be what they are without trying to repress or change them.
2. Pause to listen to what your anxiety is trying to tell you
"Anxiety arises as an indicator that we are fearful of a future event, and in the case of post-pandemic anxiety, many people are prematurely feeling worried about what they will face when the pandemic is over," Dr. Manly says. So when we slow down to tune into our anxious thoughts by journaling, talking with friends, or just having quiet time, she says we may be able to better understand what specifically is worrying us. "Once solid expectations and boundaries are in place, the future feels more predictable and less anxiety-inducing."
Let's say, for example, that journaling reveals that you're anxious about spending too much money when the world reopens to a greater degree. In this case, Dr. Manly notes that creating a budget may help you prepare for that eventuality, reducing stress and anxiety in the process.
Watson also suggests trying to reframe your anxiety by writing down each fear and then ideating how you could look at it differently. "For example, instead of [thinking], 'post pandemic life will be so overwhelming and scary,' how about [thinking] 'post-pandemic life will be an adjustment that I can handle' or 'it’s normal to be anxious about this because I’ve never experienced it before' or 'managing post-pandemic stress and anxiety is a difficult task, and I can do difficult tasks,'" she says. "Essentially, you want to validate, acknowledge, and shift the perspective."
3. Develop go-to coping strategies for calming your nerves
You won't always have time to dig deep, however, so it's important to have a stable of techniques that can soothe you quickly. "Some people like to write all their worries down and put them in an envelope as a way to 'put them aside,'" says Watson. "Others like to process their anxiety through distractions and self-soothing techniques, such as watching something funny, going on a mindful walk with a friend, or using their favorite meditation app."
She also recommends one of her favorite techniques for calming the mind quickly. "Pick a song and practice deep breathing to that song every day until you know it so well that you can play the song in your head and your body automatically relaxes," she says. Wearing a piece of jewelry or a smart watch you can use as a focus for a quick meditation when you're out can help, too. "Any of these can be done discreetly in public if you need to," she says.
4. Plan your post-pandemic life with intention
While many forms of planning are still difficult at this point—some of us don't know when we'll receive the vaccine, be called to return to offices, etc.—Watson does recommend putting some thought into how you'd like your post-pandemic life to look, and then taking steps to make that dream a reality.
Curious about what a biochemist wants you to know about the COVID-19 vaccines? Watch the video below:
This can be as simple as planning a dinner party for a few friends six months from now, or booking a trip to Europe for 2022. Or maybe it looks more like making a list of the things you don't want to bring back from the "before times," e.g. people who zap your energy, overcommitment, etc.
"The key is to be intentional about what matters to you now in terms of your values, your boundaries, and your connections instead of only looking back to your pre-pandemic lifestyle," Watson says. "Know that some things may look different, and that’s okay."
5. Share your struggles
Being honest with others about what you're going through can help, too, says Watson. "You will definitely not be alone," she says. "No one has the answers about what life will look like, so rest assured that your anxiety is our collective anxiety."
6. Go slowly
"Remember, you don’t have to do everything and see everyone all at once [when things start returning to normal]," Watson says. "We’ve taken our time to step back from the world in this crisis, so take your time stepping back into it."
Dr. Daramus adds that when it is possible to ease up a bit on COVID-19 restrictions, you can do so at your own pace. "It's your body and your boundaries, so if you want to wear a mask a little longer than other people do, that's okay. Feel free to go back to normal life slowly if it makes you feel better."
7. Set boundaries
Dr. Daramus also recommends setting some boundaries to ensure your comfort in advance. Many of us have been using preset boundaries as a tool for navigating social interactions safely through the pandemic—like by setting a hard and fast rule that you will only see people from a social distance in outdoor settings, with masks—and it makes sense to continue to employ this strategy as best practices shift throughout the year.
"Decide in advance what boundaries you still want to set with people," Dr. Daramus says. "That way, if you feel good about going to an outdoor concert, but your friends want to go to a crowded bar afterwards and you're not ready, you'll have already thought through how to set those boundaries."
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