The time has come for many to try to get back to the way things were pre-COVID-19. Along with this change have come reports of anxiety or stress in situations that were normal a little more than a year ago. Here are a few strategies to help.
First, let’s normalize how hard it is to just flip the switch and go back to “normal.” You just spent a year learning to view those normal activities as dangerous or avoiding them altogether.
Walking close to others, seeing people without masks, or crowds have started being processed by your brain as a threat. That anxious, nervous feeling? It’s your internal alarm bells telling you to get to safety through fight or flight. On top of that, add the reinforcement from health professionals and peers, and it’s entirely understandable how a group of people sitting at a bar would stress you out.
All of this just means it’ll take some time to retrain your brain to feel comfortable in situations you’ve been avoiding.
Here are a few strategies to help.
Do some self-talk about the risks and benefits of certain situations. Ask yourself: “Is this really unsafe? Am I having a residual reaction, or am I responding to a real threat?”
2. Start small
Build up your exposure to people, places, and activities over time.
Maybe start with situations that cause a little anxiety but that you know, rationally, are safe. Then, as you begin to feel comfortable in those situations, try challenging yourself to enter situations that are a little more anxiety-provoking. Over time, your brain will register that these situations are safe, and the anxiety and discomfort will fade out. Fun fact: this is called “habituation.”
3. Be prepared
Develop a “cope-ahead” plan for going into situations for the first time. This can help reduce nerves because you will feel prepared if something you anticipated happens while you’re out.
Anxiety and stress mount when two factors are occurring: your brain and body perceive a threat, and you believe that you can’t cope. This is where your coping strategy comes into play. You can reduce anxiety by helping train your brain to more accurately detect a threat (through exposure and self-talk from tips one and two), but also by building up confidence in your coping abilities. Learning and using strategies that work is the ultimate confidence booster.
So have a plan for what you’ll do if you see a friend that isn’t wearing a mask or end up in a crowded subway.
Getting back to what you think of as a "normal" lifestyle might take some time, and that's okay! Take things one step at a time and be patient with yourself.
Did you know? We created the TOVI app during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people navigate through constant change and find their rhythm. Give it a try today, it's free!
Reviewed by: Lorena Ruci, PhD, Registered Psychotherapist