We are still in a state of Public Health Emergency so it’s not over yet folks… but we are trending is a good direction and starting to see some light at the end of the crazy COVID-19 tunnel.
Now, after long periods of isolation, lockdown, and social distancing, many people are struggling with a different kind of anxiety: the fear of going back out into the world.
Re-opening anxiety is common because uncertainty is still very high about what is safe or not safe at this point. We seem to get different information from different sources. And our personal fears and anxieties have been fueled by a year of fear-based media coverage.
A new phobia actually emerged: Coronaphobia! Over-responsibility also emerged as a common pandemic anxiety. In this case, fear of COVID is not for yourself, but fear of the guilt you would feel if you (even unknowingly) passed it on to someone else.
It’s time for some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies to retrain fearful thoughts and get past re-opening anxiety.
Can You Tolerate Uncertainty?
Life has always been uncertain. The old joke is that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. But uncertainty has been right up in our faces during this whole pandemic like never before.
Uncertainty increases anxiety. So, your first instinct might be to try to eliminate uncertainty. But this is a thinking trap because uncertainly can never be completely eliminated, especially in a pandemic.
Seeking to eliminate uncertainty leads to a need to control things. It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that if you can just control everything about your situation, then you’ll feel safe and not anxious.
But the opposite is true. The more you try to control everything, the more anxious you become.
Why? You guessed it… you can never control everything no matter how hard you try.
Instead of unproductive attempts to control everything and eliminate uncertainty, ask yourself these 2 productive questions:
- What aspects of this situation are in my control?
- What aspects of this situation are not?
Spend your precious time and energy focusing only on the aspects that ARE in your control.
If you have ever considered yourself a “germaphobe,” it could be extra challenging for you to go back out in public for fear that COVID-19 is still lurking around the corner.
The precautions that we were encouraged to follow during the height of the pandemic are not sustainable forever. Learning to tolerate uncertainty will help, but also you can use the logical, rational part of your brain to fight fear of contamination or germs.
For example, consider the likelihood or statistical probability that every surface or every person you encounter is a huge COVID risk. The likelihood of that is going down dramatically at this stage of the pandemic.
Use facts to help combat re-opening anxiety and fears: The number of positive cases and hospitalizations continue to drop, and the number of vaccinations continue to increase.
Consider this question posed by a colleague:
“Would you bet $10,000 that if a scientist came and swabbed the doorknob, they would find the virus? What’s the evidence for this thought? What is the evidence against this thought? What would you tell your friend if they were in a similar situation?”
Re-adjusting to People and Social Anxiety
After a year of modified normal, we are out of practice handling in-person interactions. We adapted to Zoom meetings and happy hours and even funerals. But we are out of practice with in-person eye contact, social cues, and conversational skills.
If you had any social anxiety before the pandemic, you could find going out into the world of in-person interactions triggers re-opening anxiety.
I find some people trying to convince themselves that they are “just a homebody” or an introvert. While these are indeed valid personality traits/styles, be watchful for social anxiety and avoidance. If you get honest with yourself and find you are avoiding interacting with people, then that avoidance is tied to anxiety.
Tip Toe Back Out into the World
Avoidance is a compulsive behavior that reinforces and perpetuates anxiety. If re-opening anxiety makes you find yourself avoiding going out or being with people after a year of isolation and social distancing, try tip-toeing.
My version of “Tip Toe Back Out into the World” is a version of exposure therapy which is part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is designed to provide a structured and systematic way to expose yourself to the thing(s) that causes anxiety until you become desensitized to it – so it no longer triggers anxiety.
You can try this on your own by taking baby steps out of your house and back into things you used to do. Start with the easiest things first and as you conquer those, then tip toe another step. Don’t jump ahead. Slow and systematic wins the race.
Tip Toe Examples re: restaurant anxieties: order food for delivery, go inside a restaurant to pick up carry out, have coffee or tea at an outdoor patio, eat at an outdoor patio, eat at a big indoor food court, go to a smaller indoor restaurant and stay long enough for a drink, then progress to long enough for an appetizer, then long enough for a whole meal.
When? When to start tip-toeing is a personal decision, but whatever you choose, it’s not too early to start planning what tip-toeing will look like for you. Re-opening anxiety can definitely trick you into avoiding or postponing the process, so be careful to ensure your tip-toeing is based on logic and rational thinking instead of fear, avoidance, or all-or-nothing thinking.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
If you’d like help, CBT can help you get over re-opening anxiety, coronaphobia, social anxiety, avoidance, over-responsibility and more. Reduce worry, all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophic thinking, and worst-case scenario thinking. Learn to tolerate uncertainty. Learn how to tip toe back into an enjoyable life.