Nearly 50% of Americans say they feel anxious about resuming in-person interactions post-pandemic, according to a report from the American Psychological Association (APA)—a phenomenon psychologists have dubbed "re-entry anxiety."
Why some Americans are afraid of returning to in-person interactions post-Covid
According to APA's report, nearly 50% of Americans say they are anxious about resuming in-person interactions once it is safe to do so—and those vaccinated against Covid-19 were just as likely to express unease at social interactions as those who haven't been vaccinated.
"It's pretty normal right now to feel that way," Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at APA, said. "I do think there's this part of us that feels like, 'I've been wanting this for the last year and now it's here and I don't know how to handle it.'"
According to Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice transformation and quality at APA, given how Covid-19 shifted "our perception of what's considered normal," it's understandable that there will be "some period of time when how we respond to the world around us is going to be different, where we're going to potentially feel like this is … awkward."
And in fact, according to USA Today, research has found that, following pandemics, the number of people presenting with mental health conditions such as agoraphobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder tends to increase. "We do know from previous pandemics like SARS and Ebola that some people did experience agoraphobia following a period of social isolation," Wright said.
Lily Brown, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, said there are generally two groups of people who experience re-entry anxiety: those who have a "lurking fear" that they will catch or spread the new coronavirus, and those who feel their social skills have atrophied and may find it challenging to re-engage in social interactions.
Bufka said she thinks there's definitely "going to be a portion of the population that's really going to struggle" returning to in-person interactions. Among those people may be those from racial or ethnic groups who have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, those with mental health disorders, and those who experienced trauma amid the epidemic, such as losing a loved one or experiencing financial insecurity, USA Today reports.
How experts recommend coping with re-entry anxiety
Although experts acknowledge the transition from quarantine life to something more closely resembling pre-pandemic day-to-day life will be challenging, they say it's a necessary and ultimately beneficial process—and they offer a few strategies to help minimize the discomfort of re-entry anxiety.
Perhaps most importantly, experts said while it's important to acknowledge your stress, USA Today reports, you shouldn't avoid the situations that make you anxious. "The worst thing we could do is completely avoid things causing us anxiety, because avoidance can work in the short term but it impairs us in the long run," Wright said. "What it does, in essence, is it reinforces this notion that everything is a threat."
Similarly, Ryan Sultan, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University's Irving Medical Center, said, "The longer people avoid things that are making them anxious, the harder they will be to overcome." Sultan recommends confronting these re-entry anxieties through "exposure therapy," in which a person safely confronts the source of their fear.
That's not to say you should "go from staying locked in your apartment to taking the subway," Sultan said, but rather that you should consistently set small goals for yourself that progressively get you closer to what you find threatening or uncomfortable.
Stefani Goerlich, a psychotherapist, echoed those recommendations. "Slow, acclimatizing experiences are better than jumping into the deep end and being unprepared for how you may respond," she said. It's important to remember that "we have been through a collective trauma over the last year," she added, so you should "be as gentle with yourself as you would with anyone else who has just experienced a traumatic event."
Taking some time for introspection can also be helpful, experts said. "While we're waiting for conditions to be safer so we can socialize and move around in the world again, we can do some introspecting about what our boundaries are right now and practice communicating those boundaries with people we trust," Dulcinea Pitagora, a psychotherapist, said.
And using that time of introspection to reflect on what's important to you going forward and developing a re-entry plan could be helpful to set priorities, Aimee Daramus, a psychotherapist, said. "Think about what you have missed the most this year," she said, whether that's mingling with friends, live music, or even going to stores in person rather than relying on delivery, and make plans to gradually reintroduce these activities to your life when it is safe to do so. That said, she noted that if "the experts say something is safe but you're not ready for it," it's OK to "come out of your Covid shell gradually."
And finally, if you feel like you need help, Daramus recommends seeking out a therapist or a support group.
Brown said that, thanks to the increase in telemedicine services since the start of the epidemic, it's relatively easy to connect with a mental health professional. "I see people suffering with anxiety for years before they do anything about it," Brown said. "We know that cognitive behavioral therapy is really effective in managing anxiety. My vote is always just reach out" (Dastagir, USA Today, 3/19; Duncan, Mic, 3/21; Ducharme, TIME, 6/11/20).