Let’s talk again about reopening anxiety. If you’re feeling anxious about the prospect of returning to "normal" life, leaving lockdown restrictions behind, heading back to the office, dating, hanging out with extended family and friends, or anything else that was part of your pre-pandemic life, you’re not alone and those feelings are valid.
We want to travel, see friends and family, go out to dinner, attend a game, and listen to live music. But airplanes and hugs and shared appetizers and crowded venues may take some getting used to. We’re already conditioned to be anxious at the sight of a stranger’s unmasked face, so how will we cope with so many other changes all at once? Of course, we want to remember that it’s our ability to adapt to necessary change that will stand us in good stead now as we choose our own pace to get accustomed to the return of other ways of being.
We might have some very real and practical reasons why we might be hesitant for restrictions to end. Some of us may feel our life is better in lockdown. It will help to look at the reasons for that without judgment. Perhaps we’ll discover ways that we can make our new post-lockdown life incorporate the things we’ve gained and are reluctant to let go of. For many of us, lockdown has brought a sense of routine and safety that pre-pandemic life may have lacked.
When there was so much uncertainty and fear outside, it’s no surprise that it now feels safer to stay inside. To avoid stress and anxiety, it can often feel simpler to avoid the source of our stress, whether it’s working in an office, social events, talking to strangers, dating, or anything else that may be causing our reopening anxiety.
And yet, to be mentally and emotionally healthy, humans need some social connection. But, thanks to the situation we have had to create to keep ourselves and others safe, social anxiety is now becoming a significant mental health problem. If we want to turn that around in our lives, we will need to build up our social courage.
People Often Ask…
Q. How do I regain my social courage?
A. When it comes to managing anxiety, we have three choices: challenge our thoughts, do an exposure, or practice a coping skill.
You can challenge the thought "it’s still not safe to go into a restaurant for dinner" by looking at the evidence. Are you vaccinated? How are COVID-19 rates in your area? What do the medical experts recommend? Are you taking sensible precautions, like eating outside? Making your choices accordingly will build faith in your ability to take care of yourself and others.
You can do an exposure. This means you recognize that something makes you anxious and you work up, step by step, to doing it anyway. It will help you build your confidence and learn to tolerate uncertainty, thereby eventually decreasing your anxiety. Exposures are hard, and you can do hard things. If you’re not sure how to begin, a trained therapist can help you plan what you need to do.
A therapist can also help you learn coping skills to manage anxiety. You will soon know which work best for you and your therapist will encourage frequent repetition and practice to help make the techniques automatic. Breathing exercises, visualisation, positive self-talk, and others can become primary tools to construct a life less dominated by anxiety or panic.
You might also use anxiety as an opportunity to self-reflect. When we normalize the anxiety as part of our makeup, for now at least, it loses much of its power over us. Accept your views and feelings and know that they will continue to shift. After each ‘reopening’ experience, such as going to dinner with a group outside, or even visiting family, be curious about how you feel afterwards. By taking inventory of reactions and discussing them in therapy, you’ll stay ahead of your anxiety and avoid being overwhelmed.