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Coping with the Crisis: Re-entry Anxiety

Updated: May 23, 2022

Many of us have been isolated in our homes for weeks. Finally, the country is beginning to open up. But what happens if you feel too anxious to return to any of your life?

Most of us talk about anxiety as a bad thing.

But some anxiety is good and normal. It is actually protective. When early humans would encounter a large predator, such as a bear they’d become anxious. They’d hide or run away. The bear might attack you or try to eat you!

The problem with anxiety is that in modern life we rarely encounter a truly life threatening situation, such as a large predator.

Enter COVID-19: This crisis tapped into the anxiety and fear areas of our brains. The early weeks of the pandemic were justifiably frightening and anxiety provoking. To address those fears, we all stayed in the safest place we knew - our homes.

While some people were less strict about staying at home, as a mental health doctor I can tell you that many people have not left their homes or apartment buildings for weeks at a time.

They were scared and anxious. And now they are scared and anxious to return to the world. It is pretty normal and healthy to have some anxiety about re-entry into the world. Long term isolation has had adverse mental health effects.

Studies show that quarantine or isolation generates symptoms such as low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability and emotional exhaustion as well as full depression and post-traumatic stress.

The longer you stay isolated, the more severe and long lived these symptoms could be.

We all know that the Corona Virus hasn't gone away. It is still an invisible microscopic entity that is potentially life threatening. Yes, you could keep your risk of infection as low as possible by isolating indefinitely. But, you probably don’t want to do that. You miss being outside, seeing friends and family, living your life. So, the real question is: How do I lower my anxiety enough so I can begin to leave my home and do the activities that I miss.

How do we help those people? How do we reduce their fear and anxiety? We need to get them back to the activities they have avoided by quarantining or isolating at home.

Here are three suggestions:

1. Conscious decision to accept some risk:

Nothing you can do will create a risk-free Coronavirus life. Even staying at home is risky. But life is full of risks. Every time you leave your home you increase the risk that something might happen to you. Motor Vehicle accidents are the best example. But are you willing to deprive yourself of living your life? Risk is a personal decision. We each need to ask ourselves what amount of risk we are willing to take. For example, I don’t ride motorcycles on highways, but I might while on vacation, though I’d never ride one without a helmet. Similarly, I am willing to see friends and family outside without a mask, but not inside and I definitely am not comfortable getting on an airplane yet. How much risk are you willing to tolerate?

2. Educating ourselves on true risks:

A lot more is clear about Coronavirus than earlier in the pandemic. The medical field is clearer about how risky specific activities are. However, due to significant time spent sheltered in place, many of our anxieties about Coronavirus may be out of proportion with the actual risk.

Remind yourself of what Physicians and Scientists know:

  1. Seeing others outside, or any well ventilated space is fairly safe.

  2. People are wearing masks now, and that significantly reduces the spread of the virus.

  3. Continuing to regularly wash hands and maintain physical distancing reduces infection.

Remember: Compare how you feel to the facts. The actual risk is probably a lot lower than it “feels” inside us.

3. Practice pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone:

Now that we know that there are ways to safely begin to return to our previous lives we

need to push ourselves beyond the anxiety.

  1. Make a list of about ten activities outside your home that give you fear and anxiety.

Such as walking around your neighborhood, driving to the grocery store, meeting friends in a park, getting a haircut etc.

  1. Order them based lowest to highest level of anxiety

  2. Start with an activity that is at least moderately hard for you.

For example, if you are already going to the grocery store, but not seeing friends, push yourself to see a friend outside.

  1. As you work through the activity you will likely realize that it wasn't nearly as scary or anxiety provoking as you thought it would be. You might even remember how nice it is to do the activity.

  2. Repeat the same activities, and the anxiety reduces more and more with each repetition

  3. Continue and move through the list.

4. Dealing with The Anxiety:

You might feel it in your body: tension, nausea, breathing fast, high heart rate: Take controlled, slow, deep breaths and reassure yourself by reminding yourself of what precautions you are taking.

Final Thoughts:

If you have friends or family who are struggling to leave their homes, consider a few things.

First, what are the person’s risk factors: are they someone for whom getting Coronavirus might be very serious? Such as chronic medical conditions, obesity or older age. If so, they may need to proceed cautiously.

Second, encourage people to push themselves. Avoid directly pushing them. Anxiety symptoms can be made worse if a person is forced into a situation.

Third, encourage by helping people see the situation differently. Instead of saying to someone, “you got this”, remind them that they are taking thoughtful precautions, such as being in a well ventilated area while wearing a mask, and maintaining distance.

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