Experts share ways to ease into the "new normal" of the outside world after months in lockdown.
We have yet to understand the long-lasting mental health effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but early data coming out points to some disturbing trends. To name just a few: Calls to the National Disaster Distress Hotline jumped nearly 1000 percent in April 2020. In a recent poll, nearly half (45 percent) of American adults say their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the virus. And there's currently a shortage of Zoloft, one of the most widely prescribed antidepressants.
Since we're already a nation with 40 million adults suffering from anxiety disorders, we really didn't need this compounding factor. But considering the pervasive uncertainty around what our COVID-tinged future looks like, it’s normal to feel a heightened sense of nervousness, tension and fear.
As Lia Avellino, LCSW, Director of Head and Heart at THE WELL, explains, “Anxiety thrives off of the unknown — the what if’s and the worst-case scenarios.” Avellino also cites constant news updates and the loss of our coping mechanisms, such as going out to dinner with friends or booking a relaxing getaway, as other factors triggering our current rising anxiety levels.
Now, as states begin to re-open, you may find that not only is your anxiety still there — but it may have even increased. Below, six ways to gently and safely re-enter the world during an on-going pandemic.
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Give Yourself Credit
First, take time to look back on what you’ve already accomplished. How have you dealt with isolation successfully? Did you manage to turn to effective and healthy coping mechanisms that helped you through this difficult time? How about those days that you managed to crush a work project, help your kids with school and pull off a FaceTime date with a friend? Reflect and give yourself kudos for the hurdles you’ve already jumped over.
In fact, it’s possible that someone with a history of anxiety might have actually found that they were able to not only survive, but actually thrive during the pandemic, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist and licensed counselor. The reason? “They have the time to apply the stress management and wellness tools that they learned before quarantine.” Think: yoga, meditation, taking time to go for a walk or sharing thoughts and fears with a friend or therapist.
Continue to follow safety measures
Around the country, most state and local governments are enforcing safety measures in nearly every conceivable place beyond your home. Following these safety measures can not only help slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep you safe physically — but it can support you mentally, too, Cappana-Hodge notes.
The CDC recommends the following safety measures:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (such as our Clean Hands Sanitizer!)
- Avoid close contact by staying a minimum of six feet away from those outside your household
- Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering (a.k.a. a mask) when around others
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces around your home
- Monitor your health by being aware of symptoms and taking your temperature
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
In this COVID era, everyone has an opinion — and one person’s idea of proper social-distancing or mask-wearing might not exactly line up with yours — or the CDC’s. As Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and Chief Medical Officer of Real, an online women’s mental health clinic, notes, “Some are sticking to every single rule, while others are picking and choosing.” (Here's why everyone should wear a mask, though.)
When you’re out in public, you essentially have three options, says Capanna-Hodge: You can ignore the person (from a safe six feet away), ask a store manager to intervene (if indoors) or politely say something like, “Oh, it looks like you forgot your mask — would you mind giving me a little more space on this sidewalk / lawn / trail?”
Remember, however, that tensions are high right now, so you might want to prepare yourself for a snarky or angry response from someone who rejects these imposed measures. “As someone who regularly discusses tough subjects with people, I can say it is always best to approach people with kindness or humor, which can often diffuse the situation,” says Capanna-Hodge.
One person’s idea of proper social-distancing or mask-wearing might not exactly line up with yours.
Remember, It’s Not a Race
As you begin to venture out to the hair salon, a sidewalk café or a friend's backyard, it's important to start small. "Our nervous systems need to feel a sense of achievement before we feel willing to take larger risks," Avellino explains. "Give yourself the time and space to figure out the pace, people and locations that feel nourishing and supportive." And if you are noticing that being in public spaces is bringing up anxiety, reconsider the pace at which you’re reintegrating, she suggests.
For instance, you might notice you’re not ready to be in restaurants, but do feel comfortable having a picnic in the park. When it comes to reintegration, there is absolutely no “one-size-fits-all” approach, and keep in mind that what works for your best friend or your boss may not work for you, she reminds us.
Even though things may seem hopeless or dire at times, experts recommend trying to seek out positives whenever possible. “Clinically, we know that it’s very hard to prevent anxiety and in fact, it’s counterproductive to try,” Vasan says. “Trying to avoid, ignore or deny anxiety actually makes it worse. What’s effective is acceptance.” During this time, acknowledge that you are anxious and remind yourself that anxiety over coronavirus and the resulting life changes is totally normal and expected, she suggests.
Capanna-Hodge adds that feeling better starts with mindfulness and gratitude. "Mindfulness can bring you into the present moment, while gratitude can help you appreciate what you do have," she explains. And when we practice gratitude, it forces the brain to focus on positive things that make us feel good, and shift our attention away from things that cause us to get stuck in a negative thought pattern.
For instance, you might not be able to go on that big trip you’ve been looking forward to this summer, but you can choose to be grateful for the extra time you have to work on a home improvement project, or start training for the half-marathon you've been wanting to run.
RELATED: What It Means To Be Present
Take Note of How You Feel
Finally, if you feel that you’re doing too much when it comes to vigilance and trying to stay safe, there’s a chance that your anxiety could begin to interfere with your relationships, job and overall health, Avellino notes.
For instance, it's normal to feel anxious getting on public transportation again; however, if you are noticing that this is not an isolated worry but pervades more areas of your life and persists throughout the day, this may be an indicator that you’re trying to manage too much on your own. "Build awareness of which situations feel like ‘too much’ and differentiate between those and the ones that feel more tolerable," she suggests.
If you feel like you might benefit from professional help as you navigate this new normal, consider finding a therapist through PsychologyToday.com or trying text-based talk therapy like TalkSpace or BetterHelp. New Yorkers can also utilize the NYC Well mental health hotline. Or join one of our Support Circles to connect with a community of people working through issues that are meaningful to you.
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