Change is on the horizon. After 12+ months of quarantine-anxiety, isolation, lives lost, jobs lost, masks and distance, society is slowly opening back up. But what does this mean? Over the past year, our minds have absorbed messages surrounding safety, fear, the importance of protecting ourselves and our loved ones. Of course, this has impacted our anxiety levels and general sense of safety. On the other hand, for some this pandemic might have provided a respite from one’s social anxiety. Perhaps for some, this isolation brought a sense of calm and peace. Even so, for extroverts and introverts alike, change of any kind is not easy; now more than ever there is a collective anxiety around this uncertainty. It is my hope here to offer some helpful tools and strategies to manage your uncertainties around this transition.
One of the first steps to any kind of behavior change, whether we are changing our thoughts or emotions, is to notice what is showing up within us. When we begin to notice the emotion that’s onboard, we can begin to work with it and gain a little more control over our response to it. Using anxiety as an example, it is helpful to have a sense of what it looks and feels like. Perhaps it is a flushed, hot face, sweaty palms, fast heart rate, coupled with racing thoughts. The challenge now is to stay with it, at least long enough to let the impulse to act, pass. Anxiety is not all bad; in fact, a moderate amount is even healthy. Anxiety, fear, even anger, provides us with information about our environment and ourselves. The problems occur when we act on the impulse. This can manifest as rage, violence, or numbing the anxiety with substances. When we familiarize ourselves with the physiological sensations of these unpleasant emotions and grow our tolerance to them, we are far less likely to act out in response to them.
Once we have a sense of what we are feeling and experiencing, I encourage you to talk about it, label it. Own it. These feelings are real and they matter. When we brush what we are feeling aside, it tends to linger and marinate within us, manifesting later in bigger ways. In regards to transitioning out of the pandemic, we might observe our fear, hesitancy, or anxiety showing up. We can impulsively nose dive into the Internet, grab a drink, or find other quick ways to find relief. Or, you might lean into this opportunity to be vulnerable and talk about this with a friend, a colleague, or a therapist. Whether some fears and anxiety are rationale or distorted, you will likely find that you are not alone in them. Once you have observed within you the emotion, labeled it, stayed with it long enough to talk about and have grown an understanding of its origins, what do you then do about it? This might call for behavior change and implementing some practical strategies to regain control of our behavior.
Throughout the pandemic, particularly as it pertains to social distancing, our minds and bodies have grown an increased sensitivity to space. We might have developed an automatic, or unconscious belief that the outside is unsafe, that other people around us are unsafe. Some might have been crawling out of their skin this past year and already have their travel plans booked, it might not be that easy for others. For those who struggle to jump back into social gatherings, here are a few safe and practical suggestions to help ease your anxiety around reintegrating:
- Make a list of activities, according to your comfort level and perception of safety and risk. These activities might include, going to the grocery store, outdoor mall, indoor mall, movie theater, indoor restaurant, a wedding, or a friend’s home. Put these activities on a hierarchy, from the most comfortable, or the least amount of perceived risk, to the most risk.
- Conduct a behavioral experiment. Work your way up the list, maybe one per day, or a few per week, and record the emotions you experience along the way. You might notice that your anticipated anxiety or worries are not what you experience in reality. If you’re someone who has enjoyed the comforts of working from home and are dreading the return to the office, anticipating the anxiety, I encourage you to begin a behavioral experiment introducing yourself to various social situations.
- Employ some relaxation methods while exposing yourself to the stimulus, that being the mall, grocery store, whichever activity you choose. Count your breaths, allowing extra time on your exhale. Use some grounding methods – name objects and colors around you, look at a word and spell it backwards. These methods bring your attention outside of your mind and into the world around you, easing your anxiety response.
- Use the information you collect from your experiment as your own data to test against your worrisome thinking. Catch an automatic thought, or assumption. Ask yourself, how accurate is this? Based on my own experiment, how true is it? Ask yourself, is there a more balanced, accurate thought?
And lastly, show yourself some compassion and grace. It is safe to say that this is your first pandemic, and everyone is doing their best to get through this and back to some semblance of normalcy. Take the practical steps that the science has shown to be effective and safe, first and foremost, getting vaccinated. Wear a mask when required. Stay current on the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Change is indeed on the horizon, and so is hope. This has been incredibly tough, but so are you.