Post-Pandemic: Coping With the Anxiety of a Changed World
The pandemic isn't quite over, but many people are thinking ahead to post-pandemic life with a mixture of excitement and dread. Experts say that's not surprising—and explain how to cope.
The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is edging closer. More and more people are vaccinated each day and we’re nearing herd immunity. A sense of normalcy is on the horizon. But while we spent 2020 expecting the arrival of vaccines to open the door to a carefree future, the reality is something quite different. For some people, feelings of stress and anxiety that plagued them during the pandemic have morphed into fear and anxiety about post-pandemic life.
An American Psychological Association survey of 3,000 U.S. adults found that 46 percent don’t feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic. And 49 percent of adults in the same survey reported feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions after the pandemic ends. Even the 48 percent of survey participants who were vaccinated shared similar feelings.
If you’re in the same boat and feel anxious about returning to “normal” after the pandemic, you’re not alone. Here’s what experts want you to know and how to keep your anxiety in check.
Entering a new “new normal”
The idea that we are returning to normal is not exactly accurate, according to Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist in New York City and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “The numbers are still up, people are still encouraged to wear masks, social distancing is still important,” she says. “So the safety measures and protocols are still in place, and by virtue of that, that in and of itself means things are not normal.” Instead, we’re creating a new normal. We’re not returning to our pre-pandemic lives; nor are we continuing with the restricted living we’ve been doing for more than a year. The new norm allows for more activity and the ability to be out in the world more. “But it’s not one’s old life, so that’s the first thing,” Greer says.
Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, agrees. He says it’s perfectly normal to feel anxiety as the world returns to normal because we know the notion of returning to normal is a lie. “It’s a fiction that we tell ourselves to remain hopeful,” he says. “Deep in our hearts, we know that the world we left when Covid-19 hit did not remain stagnant. It was radically changed, just as we and our lives were changed.” This split between what we want to believe and what we know to be true causes discomfort that manifests as anxiousness or anxiety.
(Related: How to Move Ahead When the Tank Feels Empty)
Why are people anxious about the post-pandemic world?
It’s hard to quantify the many different reasons people might feel anxious about the world opening back up, but an obvious reason is that there is still a world health crisis going on. Sanam Hafeez, MD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City, says some may feel anxiety about the vaccine’s efficacy against new variants, for example. “For over a year, people are so used to checking themselves for symptoms of Covid-19 that it’s possible that some people have developed varying forms of health anxiety,” she says.
Fear of the unknown
At first, there was fear around the change that came with the pandemic. Now, that fear is the change that comes with the post-pandemic limbo. You can’t go back to the routine you held before the coronavirus hit because Covid-19 is still a global issue. But you don’t need to keep the same pandemic routine either. “Anxiety comes from not knowing, and when we’re doing the same thing daily, we know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and we’re comfortable in our routine,” Greer says.
Anxiety accompanies change
To an extent, people adapted to pandemic life and now need to adapt yet again. That’s a lot of change and unknowns for anyone to handle. Our rhythms and routines of daily living are comforting. When your regular schedule is disrupted, you’ll feel anxious—even if it means moving beyond a pandemic. “This is extraordinarily true with Covid-19 because people have taken a break on so many levels,” Greer says. People have been on a break from the ordinary activities of life, like school and in-office work. They’re also taken a break from life’s joys, such as parties, travel, sports, and close contact. There’s also the fact that some people are returning to old routines that now might feel brand new. “One person, after she was vaccinated, saw her grandchildren and was absolutely crying,” Greer says. “She said, ‘I can’t believe what it was like just to put my arms around them.'”
(Related: How Covid Has Remapped Friendships)
Abandoning the comforts of home
In addition to the unknown, some people are also anxious about losing some of the pandemic’s silver linings—things they enjoyed or appreciated about the past year. Maybe you discovered a new hobby, spent more time with your partner or pet, or started cooking more. Or maybe you’re one of the many office workers who shifted to a work-from-home arrangement and are dreading the day you have to give that up.
Living through a pandemic puts many things into perspective, and you may value things like social or solo time in a different way. According to Dr. Hafeez, shy people, introverts, or those who experience social anxiety, are especially susceptible to anxiety about the world reopening. “This group of people may have found some relief that the restrictions of Covid-19 afforded,” she says. “As the world moves from virtual to real-life or in-person situations, this places more stress on those who either like their alone time or have anxiety in business or social situations.”
People who were happy to skip in-person socializing during the pandemic may experience anxiety from the pressure to participate in social engagements once again. After all, during Covid-19, they could avoid socializing without worrying about external pressure to show up. “Now, as many have settled into that routine, we are about to go back to a semblance of our former routines, and that reentry can cause anxiety for many, as we are out of practice with ‘normal’ things in life, like dating in person, going to cocktail parties, and meeting friends for happy hour,” Dr. Hafeez says. Getting accustomed to this social interaction is going to take some time.
Anxiety, in moderation and properly managed, provides people with important data and information. “It tells us the status quo in which we are currently living needs to be altered because it’s too chaotic and uncomfortable,” Hokemeyer says. “As this relates to the anxiety we are feeling about reentering our post-Covid-19 world, the anxiety we are feeling individually and collectively is telling us we have work to do to repair ourselves, our relationship, and the world we live in.”
The bigger issue is anxiety of an existential nature: Your life may have undergone dramatic alterations during-Covid-19 and you’re wondering what kind of world you’ll be re-entering. “Covid-19 and its attendant stresses and strains changed us,” Hokemeyer says. “It brought into sharp relief the thin and very tenuous line that separates chaos and order, health and illness, life and death. While this heightened awareness and deeper consciousness present an exceptional opportunity for repair, it can also be overwhelming,” Hokemeyer says.
Who is most at risk?
Some people might not feel as anxious as others about this coming change. Hokemeyer says that people who are conscious of and thinking about the way they are in the world are susceptible to these feelings of “emergent anxiety.”
“My patients who want desperately to make meaning and manifest change from this experience are the ones who are suffering from the most anxiety,” Hokemeyer says. “This is because at this nascent stage of reemergence, they haven’t quite figured out how to concretely manifest the change they want to see.” Of course, anyone with existing anxiety disorders is also more prone to feeling anxious about the changes coming with post-pandemic life.
How to manage post-pandemic anxiety
Plan what you can
Anxiety stems from feeling a loss of control, so the more people can exercise control, take control, and put controls in place, the calmer they will be, according to Greer. That means being very mindful, thoughtful, and intentional about the activities and plans you participate in post-pandemic. “Do it in a structured way that you plan for it and you look forward to it, like a vacation,” Greer says. “That way, you know what you’re doing, who you’re going be doing it with, and where you’re going be going.” All of that gives you something exciting to look forward to, and it gives you some sense of control over the events and happenings in your life. Plus, it gives you time to mentally prepare. “You can make a plan, look forward to it, and actually do it,” Greer says.
Hokemeyer says one of the best treatments for anxiety is structure. Create and keep a daily routine and be sure to set goals. “Make sure you are sticking with a daily routine that includes time for exercise and social engagement,” he says. “Get up and go to bed at the same time every day. Eat three healthy meals. Take a daily walk.”
Find your support staff
Another way to manage anxiety is to talk to friends and family. Share your concerns because others probably feel the same way. “Learn about anxiety in general and what tools can be used to master it, such as belly breathing and meditation,” Dr. Hafeez says. If these thoughts are really interfering with your quality of life, seek help from a mental health professional.
Hokemeyer highly recommends starting a journal, particularly when it includes positive affirmations. These are short statements meant to inspire you, like “I am full of energy and ready to take on the day” or “I am worthy of love.” You may also want to do some bullet journaling. Fill one page in a notebook with your random thoughts in the morning. “Then fill up another page of one to three affirmations that you want to manifest as you reemerge into our post-Covid-19 world,” he says. These can be simple and broad or really specific to your desires. The main point, Hokemeyer says, is to be an active participant in your healing journey. Consider jotting down these phrases that calm anxiety.
Don’t say “goodbye” to the good stuff
If you’re anxious about leaving behind the silver linings of pandemic life, Greer suggests taking inventory of what has worked for you during the pandemic. “Once you know what it is, then you put the controls in place by planning those activities into your life so that you’re not losing them; you’re just not going to be able to have them the same amount of time,” Greer says. “So you find they become your takeaway lesson from the pandemic, and you learn now how to integrate them into your life to have a more meaningful experience.”
Be aware of what’s important to you, what you gained, and what you don’t want to give up. Then really structure your life and figure out how to include those aspects in it. Will you be able to add those elements of your life into every single day? Maybe not. But consider doing so on a weekly or monthly basis. According to Greer, that will give you a sense of control and will let you keep having these positive experiences.
When will the anxiety ease?
As more time goes by, Covid-19 cases and deaths will decline more and more, and people will see that they remain Covid-19-free. At that point, most people should feel better about returning to the world, says Dr. Hafeez. But change takes time. Dr. Hafeez recommends taking baby steps when returning to a “normal” life. “For example, if you are traveling for the first time since the pandemic, don’t take an overseas flight,” she says. “Take a short, domestic flight to build your confidence.”
If you are dining out at a restaurant for the first time, don’t go with a larger group during the Saturday night rush. Try a Monday night with one friend. According to Dr. Hafeez, this baby-steps process goes by a more sophisticated term: exposure therapy. With this technique, you expose yourself to the thing you fear, little by little, until the fear subsides. “Yes, as a whole, we will go back to normal, but it will take some time after the collective trauma this country and the world have been through,” she says.
Hokemeyer is optimistic that post-pandemic life anxiety may start to subside around 90 days into the complete reemergence and reopening of the world. “Ninety days is an important period neurologically,” he says. “It’s the amount of time required by our central nervous system to integrate new information and recalibrate to a new reality.”
Keep tabs on your feelings
The essence of anxiety comes from change, not knowing what will happen, and a certain sense of helplessness. Be aware of how you feel as you make plans for yourself, Greer says. Look for ways you can control or take charge of your post-pandemic life. The more controls you have in place, the calmer you’ll be.