As more and more people become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, it feels like most of them are sliding into my DMs. “I can’t wait to hang out SO SOON!” one friend texts me. “Backyard BBQ szn, here we come!” says another with a photo of their bicep band-aid badge. But after over a year of keeping each other at arm’s length, I’m not sure I’m ready to let even my loved ones back in.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken so much from us. A staggering number of people have lost jobs and housing, missed major milestones like weddings and graduations — and said goodbye to almost 550,000 loved ones, often via the same screens where we work and play. Even the luckiest among us have had our sense of safety infiltrated by the risk of contagion and have faced life-changing challenges during the pandemic.
Last March, I was riding the subway to work on what I didn’t know then would be the last time and sneezed into my elbow. As my fellow passengers fled to the other end of the car, a small seed of anxiety began to bloom in my chest. It took root as our world contracted, and it wasn't long before the very thought of a crowded restaurant made my heart rate skyrocket, my hands tremble and my head swim with adrenaline. Now, the excitement of loosening restrictions glimmers like watery sunlight through a choking thicket of fear. And I don’t know how long it’ll take to hack my way out, but I do know I'm not alone.
“Anxiety is a survival response and therefore, it is an appropriate response for reentering the post-COVID world,” happiness expert Matthew Ferry reassured me. The author of Quiet Mind Epic Life calls anxiety a valuable tool for navigating our complex and sometimes dangerous world. But like all tools, unless we learn how to work with that anxiety, we might as well be firing up a backhoe without a license.
Acknowledge your feelings as valid
Feelings don’t exist in a vacuum, and even that heart-clenching fear is trying to point to something, explains Dr. Margie Warrell, founder of Global Courage and author of You've Got This: The Life Changing Power of Trusting Yourself. And it makes sense to be a little wary of each other after we’ve spent a year conditioning ourselves to see the potential for pestilence in every passerby.
“Human beings aren’t always reasonable, so to compensate, your biology uses anxiety, fear and negative emotions to get you to move towards safety and security,” Ferry adds. He recommends admitting to yourself when you’re feeling anxious instead of trying to swallow or ignore the rising tide. “Accept your body has decided there is a potential danger and it is getting ready for it. Focus on it and breathe into it.”
Then, acknowledge that red alert your body has sent you. Tell yourself that you’re going to follow best practices to keep both you and that anxiety animal that lives in your head safe.
Know what we do know
I’ve spent years fine-tuning techniques to manage my anxiety, but this one turned all of my coping mechanisms on their head. My brain is at its calmest when I’ve got the day’s roadmap in my bullet journal, my fridge stocked with prepped ingredients and my calendar updated weeks in advance. Not knowing what the next week’s COVID numbers will look like, when my age bracket will be vaccine eligible or when we might return to the office has felt like sailing through uncharted seas.
“If you are anxious about going back to particular places, understanding their COVID protocols is important to feeling safe,” explains Perri Shaw Borish, a psychotherapist and founder of Whole Heart Maternal Mental Health. Look up a restaurant’s safety measures before you go or ask about social distancing and mask enforcement before attending an event. If you’re nervous about what being in crowded places will feel like, Warrell advises taking small steps first. First venture to a quiet cafe, then maybe a sit-down restaurant, and take gradually bigger steps as your brain relaxes back into the world.
Listen to your gut
And remember, we’re all individual people with our unique idiosyncrasies. Just because the experts say a certain situation is low-risk doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself into it right away. Give yourself the grace to change your mind too. What felt safe yesterday doesn't have to be your new normal tomorrow.
“Maintaining your physical boundaries that will help keep you safe and bring down your anxiety is important,” says Shaw Borish. My friends may feel safe sitting around a bonfire unmasked, but I’m keeping my security blanket over my nose and mouth for now. We’re all creeping toward normal at our own pace, and that’s perfectly OK.
Find your anxiety allies
Finally, remember that we’re all going through some version of this together. Even essential workers who never had the privilege of locking themselves in their houses still have to contend with the atmosphere of distrust that’s pervaded our public spaces for so long. Dialing that back down takes time and support, and it’s important to find yours.
“When we are anxious and in doubt, breathe, talk to someone and visualize ourselves calm,” advises certified life coach Anita Kanti, author of Behaving Bravely. “We don't have to face our fears alone.”
If you’re not the type to talk it out with a friend, consider speaking with a therapist about how you’re managing or try meditation to get in touch with your body’s stress signals. Getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and learning what your triggers are so you can separate from them when they arise can all help too, Shaw Borish adds.
It may be months before I can sit in a conference room again, my stomach churning about nothing except saying the wrong thing. But in the meantime, I’m packing my toolbox to get back out there, looking forward to the day when we can all dance together in the sun.