I’m Scared of When Social Distancing Ends—but Here’s How I Plan on Dealing

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From the start of New York’s stay-at-home order I knew two things would be true for me—staying at home was going to test my depression and going back into the world after restrictions were lifted was going to test my anxiety.

As some states, like Georgia, begin to ease their restrictions and encourage socializing at a larger scale, I’ve felt my anxiety rise at the thought of New York doing the same.

I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and even on my worst days have found comfort in its busy streets and hectic lifestyle. I’ve always been able to hide in the city. For a long time it was the noise and speed of the city that made it easy for me to ignore how poorly I was taking care of myself, mostly because I’d never bothered to learn how to do so. Growing up in a Latinx family in a low-income neighborhood had made survival a priority and everything else a luxury.

As some states, like Georgia, begin to ease their restrictions and encourage socializing at a larger scale, I’ve felt my anxiety rise at the thought of New York doing the same.

Now the sounds of New York trigger other realizations. The sirens that have become the city’s soundtrack through this pandemic remind me that my anxiety is easily triggered by sounds that remind me of sickness and death. Since my grandmother’s death when I was 21, I’ve been going to therapy and it’s helped me learn how to manage and cope with my mental health, but it doesn’t erase the natural reaction we have to the unknown—fear.

“There are still many unknowns, and a natural response to an unknown is to approach the unknown with caution, which often includes fear,” explained David Rivera, PhD, Psychologist and Associate Professor, Queens College-CUNY. “Many people will have fear associated with the easing of restrictions, as we know that there is not currently a vaccine or cure for COVID-19. We also know that marginalized communities, such as the poor and people of color, are impacted in disparate ways. We are entering into unknown territory regarding what life will be like as the physical distancing restrictions are eased.”

The "normal" everyone keeps talking about on social media and in conversations with friends feels more intimidating for me. Mostly because my everyday reality is already pretty overwhelming. I don’t have to watch the news to know this. Any time I pick up my phone for my daily check in call to my uncle, someone else from the neighborhood I grew up in is in the hospital or has passed away.

Just last week, someone in our extended family passed away and now their family is having to take on the emotional labor of grieving, while simultaneously finding a funeral home in an outer borough to bury them because none of the local ones have availability.

On a personal level, I’m afraid of the potential of having to go out into larger groups, ride the subway, or not have room to circle around someone on a crowded street. But, the layers of anxiety pile on when I think of those I love who are immunocompromised, living in underserved neighborhoods, or being treated as footnotes in a reality that will impact us all.

When speaking with Professor Rivera, he offered tips on how to handle the anxiety and frustration that may come with easing back into living with less restrictions.

Notice how you’re already coping with this new normal

“First, we cannot change the context created by the pandemic, however, we do have some control over how we engage with the pandemic,” explains Professor Rivera. “It can be helpful to take stock of how we are coping and assess how our coping mechanisms are helping us persist through this difficult time. Being conscious of our coping mechanisms can help us to put them in place when we need them.” Coping mechanisms can span from making boundaries to building up supportive relationships.

Tracking my own coping habits has helped me figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what situations are best served by one tactic over another.

Practice mindfulness

“Mindfulness is a strategy that can be very helpful in terms of alleviating anxieties and helping us to become more in tune with our own selves,” encourages Professor Rivera. “If we are mindful of our emotions, we can determine when we may need to incorporate a coping strategy to help us maintain an optimal state of being. For example, if you notice yourself becoming more anxious as you enter into public spaces more frequently, you can employ a mindful body scan, brief meditation, or intentional breathing to help cope with this emotional reaction.”

Speak up, if you can

One of the hardest parts for me has been noticing how easy it can be for us to disengage from the impact COVID-19 is having on individuals, families, and communities, particularly when it’s not on our immediate radar. When possible, or when you have the emotional bandwidth, speaking up for how vulnerable communities can be impacted can help ease your anxieties and make you feel more in control, notes Professor Rivera.

“It can be helpful to voice these concerns in our social media circles as ways of helping to educate others about the complexities of the pandemic and its disparate impacts on various communities,” shares Professor Rivera. “Social justice advocacy can be a helpful coping mechanism, especially for those who understand the social justice implications of the pandemic."

When dealing with this new normal, Professor Rivera says to give yourself (and others) grace, and don't be afraid to talk about how you're feeling. “There is not a one size fits all model for how we can voice our concerns and emotions to those around us. I find that it is best to be genuine and transparent when we disclose our emotions to other people. Make your message personal. Include how you and your communities are being impacted and your related concerns.”

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