Compassion & Simplicity: How to Cope with Re-Entry Anxiety

Just a few days ago, the CDC revised its guidelines for mask-wearing: if you’re at least two weeks out from being fully vaccinated, either with two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or with one dose of the Johnson & Johnson, you “no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting.” In other words, not only is it safe to go maskless while outside, where we’ve now learned that the likelihood of transmission of the disease is below 1%, you don’t need to wear a mask inside, eitherexcept where mandated by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial regulations.

This should be good news, right? So why are we not all gathering in the streets, throwing our masks up into the air and rejoicing, allowing ourselves a proper “end of the war” celebration? There are a number of complicated reasons for this muted, ambivalent, and even for some, panicked response. Most significantly, the majority of the population is still not vaccinatedonly around 1/3 of Americans have been fully vaccinated, and that 1/3  is overwhelmingly white and affluent. How can we wholeheartedly celebrate when the vaccine effort, just like the disease itself, has laid bare the systemic inequality and injustice at the heart of Americanot to mention, globally?

While The New York Times recently reported that vaccine parity is progressing, the other somewhat murkier issue is that people don’t exactly know how to feel about these new, looser guidelines. After more than a year, during the first few months of which we were led to believe we would die if we went outside and talked to other people, we are now being confronted with a level of freedom and laxity that feels somehow wrong, even forbidden. We have endured a long chapter of collective trauma, and we need to be gentle, empathetic, and cautious with ourselves and others as we get back to “normal,” recognizing that many of us will be experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Many of us will not feel comfortable taking off our masks insideor even outsidefor quite some time, whether because of residual fear, habit, or mistrust of public health authorities, whose message has now flip-flopped so many times it’s hard to tell what is actually safe. Many of us will still be working from home, permanently now, feeling isolated and grieving but panicked about entering into social situations. Many of us have loved ones who have passed away, or moved away. We have all changed this year, whether we want to admit it or not. We cannot just simply resume the activities, attitudes, and behaviors that we were engaging in pre-pandemic. To do so without questioning, without some discomfort, would be to invalidate this uniquely challenging year.

So what can we do to hold space for this discomfort, anxiety, and wariness, to allow it and to move through it?

First off, you cannot wait for the risk to be zero and for all your anxiety to dissipate in order to resume your life. “Covid zero,” as some are calling it, is not realistic. And neither is “anxiety zero.” In an interview with Emily Fletcher, founder of Ziva Meditation, Thomas Jones, a psychotherapist and the creator of the Paradox Process, posits that simply because of the nature of the circumstances we find ourselves in, there is going to be a certain amount of anxiety and depression. The issue arises when you start projecting that anxiety onto your own life, your relationships, your financial situation, making it part of the narrative of you, rather than an inevitable effect of a global crisis. Our minds are very good at taking those free-floating feelings and mapping them onto our own insecurities. Recognizing that these feelings are normal, and not signs that you are somehow failing, is the first step in coping with them.

In the April New York Times article, “The Nervous Person’s Guide to Re-entering Society,” writer Christiana Caron lays out more guidance on how to confront re-entry anxiety. She cites Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a Boston-based clinical psychologist, who argues that anxiety thrives on avoidance. So continuing to NOT do the things you feel anxious about does not get rid of the anxiety. In fact, it only makes it worse. She stresses that feeling anxious does not necessarily mean you are in danger or that something is wrong. On the contrary, anxiety is going to be a normal part of post-pandemic life, as Jones contends as well. Lina Perl, a clinical psychologist in New York, agrees, recommending that you “Train your nervous system to recognize that you are not in danger by doing the very activities that might make you a little anxious. Once you’re in that situation, try to stay there until the anxiety starts to fade.”

What if it doesn’t fade, though? Perl suggests speaking to yourself “in a safe, reassuring voice, much like an encouraging parent might do with their child on the first day of school.” And probably the best remedy: talking to a therapist or another person who can offer support. While it’s important to face your anxiety, it’s equally important to recognize your boundaries, and a therapist or a trusted friend can help you do that, and can help you keep communicating and understanding what feels safe and what doesn’tand why. Caron also encourages you to “Let go of resentment,” by focusing on yourself rather than on whether other people are following public health guidelines rigorously enough; “Prioritize activities that help reduce anxiety,” such as exercising and eating whole foods; and recognize that “You do not have to replicate what you did in the ‘before times'”: washing your hands more frequently, wearing a mask on public transit or when you feel sick, refraining from shaking handsthese are all habits that you may choose to hold onto. And that’s okay. Don’t compare yourself to others and how they’re coping.

This situation is new for all of us, and each of us will be dealing with the fallout from the pandemic in different ways, and at different rates. But anxiety and depression are nothing new. And we can lean on spiritual guidance around these feelings and mental states that has always been true. Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, describes that part of yourself that gets gripped in panic, anxiety and insecurity as “The Controller.” We all try to control in different wayseither by withdrawing from ourselves or others, or by worrying, planning, or obsessing. The first thing you can do to combat The Controller is just to notice: “just pause, notice what’s happening, and ask yourself, ‘what is this like?’ What does my body feel like? My heart? What is my mind like? Is there any space at all? Do I like myself when I’m identified as The Controller?” In this pause, Brach insists, lives freedom, lives the possibility of a different choice: “You might ask yourself, ‘What would happen if I just took my hands off the control a little? What would happen if I simply attended to the present moment, to the experience of being here and now?” Brach advises bringing compassion to yourself in these moments. She suggests bringing a hand to your heart, breathing, and feeling kindness from yourself, kindness towards that insecure place through that touch.

As you may be gathering, many of the activities and practices you’ve learned to do to cope with the anxiety of the pandemic and lockdown still apply as things open up and restrictions loosen. You don’t have to throw away all your hard-won wisdom just because you can also potentially go to brunch with friends again. So take it slow: don’t feel like you have to go from zero to one hundred immediately; pace yourself, and continue to prioritize rest, recovery, and sleep; stay hydrated; eat regular meals; spend time in nature and nurture your liver/wood element; book an acupuncture appointment to help yourself connect to your body and to the seasons. You may have found yourself holding onto those simple rituals of daily life during the pandemic. Don’t let go of them. They are still here for you. 

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