By Alan Resnick
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that over 100 million (39%) of the nation’s adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and 55% have received at least one dose. Disneyland reopened after 13 months, albeit allowing only in-state guests and operating at 25% of capacity. And cruise lines will resume sailing by midsummer if they can certify that 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.
So things are beginning to return to normal. But most of us still have questions about how to change our behaviors and understand just how protected we and the others around us are — or are not. It remains unclear how long the vaccines will remain effective (latest research indicates at least six months), and whether vaccinated individuals can become infected and spread the virus, even if they themselves don’t get sick.
These sorts of questions have left some people in a state of panic, even if they’ve been fully vaccinated. I’m a semi-retired industrial psychologist who has volunteered for the last four years as an online crisis counselor. The past few months have seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people reaching out to talk about depression and anxiety relating to participating in such basic daily activities as visiting a grocery store, riding public transportation, or even going out for a walk.
Mental health professionals and the media have labeled this reaction “reentry anxiety,” and it is very real and traumatic for some people. A February Psychology Today article stated, “We cannot underestimate the psychological impact of this past year … Many of us will basically be recovering from a form of PTSD” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Reentry anxiety has both a rational and an irrational component. Some of the initial information we received from our top health agencies about Covid-19 was simply incorrect. For example, the public was initially led to believe that the virus is spread by heavy droplets that settle and linger on surfaces. Think back to some of the things we were doing last year before it became clear that Covid-19 is actually transmitted via breath in a microscopic, highly contagious mist. Remember wiping down counters, doorknobs and appliance handles, and sinks with disinfectant wipes?
I recall receiving a package from Amazon and treating the box as if I was defusing a bomb. It was a two-person job with me in a mask and disposable gloves opening the box on the front porch and handing the contents to my wife (also in a mask and gloves) who then cleaned each bottle with a disinfectant wipe. After breaking down the box on the porch and putting the packaging in the recycling bin, I went inside, shut the door with my elbow, carefully took off the gloves, changed clothes, and washed my hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before drying them with a paper towel. All this for some shampoo and body wash.
It also took scientists awhile to establish the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing. And, of course, the CDC and National Institute of Health (NIH) had to deal with the nonsense that was billowing from the former President, such as the “benefits” of hydroxychloroquine, the medicinal value of ingesting bleach, and using a flashlight as a suppository.
So perhaps it is understandable that the CDC and NIH have been, until last week, extremely if not ridiculously conservative regarding the need for masks for even outdoor activities. On April 27, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can now unmask at small outdoor gatherings or when dining outside with friends from multiple households. They can also walk, run, or bike outdoors sans mask with members of the same household. Hopefully, this shift of focus from what can’t be done to what can be done safely without a mask if vaccinated will motivate some of the undecided or skeptical to roll up their sleeves.
But after more than a year of being told to wear a mask, stay home, and socially distance or risk gasping for breath on a ventilator with no visitors permitted, is it any wonder that some people, even if fully vaccinated, are struggling to unchain themselves from dire warnings? As Dr. Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s School of Public Health put it in a recent STAT article, “Our brains see these dichotomies in black and white rather than shades of gray. We don’t deal well with ambiguities or notions of relative safety, and like to think of situations as merely either completely safe or unsafe, rather than as partially or relatively safe.”
The problem, however, is that anxiety is maintained by avoidance and fueled by uncertainty. So, if you are waiting for the day that you will have zero anxiety about doing something, you’re in for a very long and apprehensive wait. Or as clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, puts it: “Feeling anxious doesn’t mean you’re in danger, doesn’t mean something is wrong, it is a normal part of entering post-pandemic life.”
So what can be done if you or someone you love is experiencing reentry anxiety? The experts have come up with some basic yet powerful recommendations.
FIRST, take baby steps and go slowly. There’s no need to leap from sheltering in place to your pre-pandemic lifestyle in one day. And it certainly would be inadvisable if not downright dangerous to attempt to make up for lost time. But now that the weather is getting warmer, take a walk or, better yet, invite someone to walk with you. If you and a friend have both been vaccinated, buy a carry-out lunch and meet at a park, on your deck, or inside your house.
The fancy term for taking small but progressively larger steps is “exposure therapy.” It really doesn’t matter how small the step you take is as long as you’re moving forward from where you are today.
SECOND, focus on what you can control. Life would be so much easier if we could control the behavior of other people, but unfortunately that’s impossible. Getting angry, frustrated, or resentful with those who ignore CDC guidelines or behave differently than you will only cause your anxiety to spike.
THIRD, stay with some of the CDC recommendations if they help calm or alleviate your fears. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask on public transportation or a plane even when things get back to normal. Frequent hand washing certainly helps ward off common colds and flu.
FOURTH, exercise in your home, in a gym with a mask on, or outdoors. Taking care of your body is a great way to take care of your mind. Aerobic exercise has been found to elevate brain activity and help reduce chronic anxiety.
FIFTH, reflect on what truly makes you happy. Most likely it will involve family and friends, recreational or social activities outside, or simply returning to life as you knew it. Let that bigger picture function as a stimulus for overcoming fears that might start to seem small by comparison.
SIXTH, it’s perfectly fine to have a different set of boundaries than another family member or friend. My wife and I were comfortable grocery shopping even before we were vaccinated, but neither of us is ready to eat inside a restaurant. Similarly, we’re not going to travel by plane this year, but have already planned a road trip for October. As my wife is fond of saying, “Everybody does what’s right for them.”
SEVENTH. talk to family and friends about how you are feeling and inquire as to how they are doing. And if you’re noticing that your anxiety or a loved one’s is becoming debilitating, reach out to a mental health professional or contact Crisis Text Line (text 741741) where I volunteer. Someone will be there 24/7.
Don’t worry—you’ll get there, at your own pace.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.