- Experts say that some people may have trouble adjusting to a more normal life as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.
- People may have concerns about socializing or being in crowded places, emotions they should recognize as being valid.
- They add that people can acclimate themselves by making specific plans and slowly immersing themselves back into society.
A year ago, we were hunkered down in quarantine and dreaming of the moment we’d plunge into those life experiences we savor.
Oh, the taste of freedom would be so sweet, we thought back then: We will hug everyone.
Here we are now, on the cusp of a fully opened society, with ballgames in full swing, concerts making a comeback, and masks no longer required in most places for people who are vaccinated.
Anyone feel kind of hesitant at the thought of those very things we yearned so deeply for?
If so, you're not alone.
“I am seeing this a lot,” Marna Brickman, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist at Guiding Therapy in Annapolis, Maryland, told Healthline. “People are out of practice and out of the routine of being social,” she said, “so now something that was so natural is making us nervous.”
While some people are diving full speed into life again, others are struggling with everything from the notion of sitting in a movie theater, walking into a store maskless, flying on a crowded airplane, and even just bumping into a friend on the street.
“I was born an extrovert, always have been,” Eileen Mell, a public relations specialist in Massachusetts, told Healthline. “Now I feel strange and a little nervous at the idea of extroverting.”
Why we feel this way
How did we become anxious?
It’s not just about falling out of habit, although that's a part of it.
“Maybe we are all just more aware of how vulnerable we are now,” Beth Litchfield, LICSW, a social worker in Massachusetts who specializes in helping people cope with everyday life, told Healthline. “We became conditioned through this time to see our vulnerability in a way we may never have before.”
Brickman explains that a lot of the feelings people are having are based in fear, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Fear, she says, has after all been almost a constant commodity in our lives since the pandemic began.
“Your body is telling you, ‘Alert! Alert!,'” she said, “which is a perfect storm of what we don’t need.”
Martha Wilson, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, has long been an active traveler, taking her children on back country ski adventures and on bike trips.
When things shut down, she mourned for those days of just jumping on a plane for another adventure.
And yet, now she’s leery.
“I don’t consider myself a risk-averse person,” Wilson told Healthline. “I do a lot of things that people think are crazy (like downhill mountain biking).”
In the past, she said, “it didn’t even occur to me that going on a plane could be a risk; that you could catch a disease on a plane.”
Now that Wilson is beginning to plan family adventure trips again, she has a new subliminal narrative.
“Now I’m thinking about things like, how long will we be on the plane? How long must we risk being in the airport? My view on it all has changed,” she said.
And while you may think the naturally introverted found this all a snap, think again.
Shelli Black, a real estate researcher in Tennessee, told Healthline she’s always been an introvert, but as an adult, she'd trained herself to interact more comfortably out in the world.
“Socializing isn’t a gift,” she said. “It’s a skill you have to practice.”
Now, deeply out of practice, she feels out of sorts in places that were normal to her just a year ago.
She recently ventured to a seafood restaurant she has long loved and had to leave when the noise of the crowd overwhelmed her.
“It’s the little things like not being used to noise that surprise me,” she said.
How to move past it
Anxiety around flying isn’t stopping Wilson from planning to jump back into the adventure travel life.
Her plan is to travel again, being sure to think through each situation and be prepared — different indeed from the days of a dash to the airport without much worry.
That, Litchfield said, is a good plan — for her.
The rest of us?
Experts say that we need to do a combination of preparing, thinking things through, dipping our toes into situations slowly, and sometimes just letting past experiences stay in the past.
“Acknowledging the feelings we may have and not judging ourselves for them is important,” Litchfield said.
So, too, she said, is setting boundaries that make you feel comfortable (like continuing to wear a mask) and not judging others for whatever choices they may make as well.
Litchfield adds that acknowledging that others are also struggling can help “normalize” any anxiety you may be feeling and give yourself a break as you work past it.
For Mell, her husband, and her two children, the time at home alone was a chance to strengthen their already strong family bond without much static from the outside world.
Now, she realizes, it’s time to learn how to keep that strong bond and find time to be that extrovert again.
“Right now it feels like we are all baby chicks breaking out of shells,” Mell said. “I’m betting it will be better once we are out and into the world, but the process will likely have some edges and be truly exhausting. It won’t be an instantaneous event.”
Litchfield adds that pushing yourself to get out there again may have a priceless byproduct: hope.
“Realizing this moment is what we have (after a year of not having these moments to embrace) gives us a ton of power,” she said.
“There’s been a real lack of hope (in the pandemic year),” Litchfield said. “We need to instill some hope into these kids, these families and ourselves. Change the channel in your head to hope.”