Re-Entry Anxiety

With the recent ease on COVID-19 restrictions, people now have the opportunity to eat on restaurant terraces, welcome family members into their backyards, and enjoy a show along side a small crowd of onlookers. Needless to say, this is a big deal.

Intuitively, you’d think that the steady reduction of safety measures would eventually cause people to run to their friends and family members with open arms and teary eyes, but that’s not the case for everyone.

Re-entry anxiety is experiencing anxiety symptoms around integrating back into a world where we will leave the home more often and be in closer proximity to other people on a regular basis.

Practitioners at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine highlight two different types of re-entry anxiety. The first is a lurking fear of getting or spreading COVID and the second is an apprehension about socializing after, what feels like a century, of staying distant.

Re-Entry Anxiety Related to Getting or Spreading COVID

Let’s not forget what anxiety actually is - it is the automatic activation of an alarm system, set to prepare the body for survival in the face of danger. When we need to stay alive, the body unleashes the fight-or-flight system and we experience shortness of breath (to distribute oxygen more efficiently), heart palpitations (to get blood pumping to important areas), hypervigilance (to quickly identify threats and exits), etc.

COVID has legitimately threatened our survival and the survival of those around us. It has primed the pump of our fight-or-flight systems to be armed and ready in every moment just in case of a COVID emergency. We’ve done enough living-on-the-edge for a lifetime. Therefore, even when COVID is no longer a threat, it will be remain difficult to feel relaxed when we leave the house. For the past 15 months, we have trained our bodies to stay alarmed - it will be hard to dial that back to a “normal” pre-COVID anxiety.

Re-Entry Anxiety Related to Re-Integration into the Social World.

Not everyone will feel happiness and freedom in seeing friends and family after all of this time. I’ve been hearing from otherwise “non-anxious” individuals who wish to avoid social gatherings all together after this year and a half hiatus. Here’s a statement I received from someone feeling unenthusiastic about social life resuming. “We’ve gotten into a nice routine, not having to run from BBQ to birthday party to play dates and back again. I love my family and friends more than anything but before COVID we seemed to never have time to do what we wanted.”

What can we do to reduce re-entry anxiety symptoms?

Go easy.

We are at the tail end of a collective trauma - we have all been affected by COVID in some way shape or form. Therefore, reducing judgments and increasing empathy for ourselves and for others, is the only way to proceed during this re-integration period. Re-entry will look respectively different for each and every person, so it will be important to respect our own choices in addition to the choices of other people in how they re-enter the world.

Start slow.

Like with any good exposure therapy, we must gradually expose ourselves to the very thing we are avoiding. We cannot relentlessly avoid our fears (avoidance increases anxiety) nor can we suddenly throw ourselves in front of our fears (sudden exposure causes panic). Successful exposure happens by slowly, incrementally, and consistently facing worries. Therefore, gradually yet consistently going out in public or attending social gatherings will be an important part of managing re-entry anxiety. Consistency is particularly important for long-term anxiety reduction. Habitual exposure to what you are avoiding gives you durable long-term power over your fears. They become no match for you as you continuously beat them down at every turn.

Set boundaries and remove the guilt in doing so.

What about those of us who are not worried about COVID itself or the social discomfort that comes with re-entry but are instead concerned about returning to an unmanageable and exhausting pre-COVID social routine? For those of us reluctant about being in the thick of social rollercoasters pulling us in a million different directions, we must feel comfortable putting down respectful and loving boundaries. In other words, we must be able to decline invitations if we don’t want to attend an event or meet someone for coffee. There is nothing wrong with using statements like: “I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it this time. See you at the next one.” Forging boundaries displays compassion for our wants and needs and for what we’ve all been through this year. Therefore, give yourself a break and say “no” sometimes, should it suit you. You are doing nothing wrong by declining an invitation so there is no need for guilt or shame in taking a rain check - feeling guilty for saying “not this time” will feed the anxiety instead of reducing it. Furthermore, for some of us, COVID has been the most unlikely of teachers, having given us a lesson in the art of slowing down and while it would be unhealthy to become complete hermits, turning down more invitations in the post-COVID world might actually be what some of us have always wanted all along but have never had the insight to know it.

Anna-Maria, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. In addition to working with psychiatric populations in some of Montreal’s most respected health care institutions, she has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.