Newswise — LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 29, 2021) — Pandemic restrictions are beginning to ease as the state, and country, returns to “normal.”

For nearly a year, we relied on masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, many are removing the facial coverings, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to shed the anxiety that accompanies a global pandemic.

If you’re having difficulty coping with this added stress, psychology experts at the University of Kentucky say you’re not alone.

Shannon Sauer-Zavala is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and she works to refine psychological interventions. Matthew Southward is a postdoctoral scholar, and he works to provide evidence-based cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness-based treatments for people with a range of mood, anxiety, trauma, substance and personality disorders.

In the Q&A session below, Sauer-Zavala and Southward use their expertise to offer tips for coping with reopening anxiety.

UKNow: As communities start to reopen — students return to the classroom and businesses operate at full capacity — is it common for people to feel anxious?

Southward: Absolutely.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the vaccination status of others, whether schools and businesses have changed procedures, what rules they’re implementing, etc., and uncertainty is one of the biggest drivers of anxiety. As much as we’ve been looking forward to living our lives without thinking about the pandemic, because we don’t have a clear, agreed-upon roadmap for how everyone will safely transition to more open activities, it’s totally natural for people to feel anxious.

Sauer-Zavala: Additionally, any time you’re out of practice with something (like engaging in face-to-face interactions, being in a crowded space), it’s normal to feel anxious. Anxiety is just your body’s way of alerting you to pay attention to your environment — which is natural when you’re re-learning how to engage in social contexts.

UKNow: How do we ease back into was deemed “normal” before the pandemic?

Southward: We think of it as a three-step process. Step one is to acknowledge our anxiety as a completely normal response to a rapidly changing situation. Step two is to check the facts of a “normal” activity: Am I/others vaccinated? Is there a mask policy? How well-ventilated is the activity? What are the latest CDC guidelines on the likelihood of COVID-19 infection/transmission? Step three is to use that information to make an informed decision about which “normal” activities to push yourself to try first (e.g., an outdoor dinner with friends; going to a baseball game) and repeat these activities to get comfortable with them.

UKNow: Many have found solace in quarantining, but would you encourage those who are anxious to step outside of their comfort zone?

Southward: We fully recognize that some people have felt safer quarantining and for many valid reasons. At the same time, if quarantining is getting in the way of a person doing things that are valuable or important to them, and they’re vaccinated and not immunocompromised or interacting with people who are, it may be worthwhile to try the three steps above to re-engage with activities that improve the quality of their life.

Of course, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that the way we did things before the pandemic isn’t always the optimal way to schedule our lives. Some people have commented on making an intentional effort to restructure their days, for instance, to be less jam-packed. So, for someone feeling anxious about re-engaging with “normal” activities, it may also be advisable to reflect on how to re-engage in a way that’s most sustainable for them and to prioritize those actions in step three.

UKNow: Those who are struggling may be wondering, will this get any easier. Will time help them overcome these challenges?

Sauer-Zavala: When it comes to overcoming fears, practice and repetition are really important. Think about the first time your drove a car; you likely felt nervous and like you had to pay very close attention to every step in the process (turning the key, stepping on to the break, putting the car in drive, checking your mirrors). Now, driving is probably like second nature. The same is true for encountering other people after 18 months in isolation. The first couple times you engage in social activities, you might feel nervous. However, over time, you’ll learn that feared outcomes don’t occur (getting COVID after dining on a restaurant patio), and your anxiety will decrease. 

UKNow: What additional advice would you give to those who are hesitant about getting back into society? How can they manage their fears?

Southward: Everyone notices fear and anxiety in different ways — some people worry, others feel physically unsteady or unwell, and others avoid situations. One of the best ways to manage these fears is to first recognize what anxiety feels like for us. Then, when we notice it, to ask ourselves whether this anxiety fits the situation or is getting in the way of us doing something we value. All emotions give us information about our world, but that information isn’t always 100% accurate, so it’s important to reflect on how it matches up with a given situation. If fear is getting in the way of us doing something we value, using the three-step process above would be a perfect way of tolerating the fear and teaching our bodies to update the emotional information it gives us about this less risky situation.

UKNow: Moving forward, everyone’s comfort level will be different. How can we come from a place of understanding?

Sauer-Zavala: Different people will approach our re-opening world differently. Comfort levels may differ based on vaccination status, whether someone is immunocompromised, and whether someone interacts regularly with someone that cannot be vaccinated (i.e., young kids, people with certain medical conditions). Everyone should be entitled to drawing their own conclusions about the level of risk they’re willing to tolerate — however we urge people to be guided by medical evidence, rather than their anxiety.

UKNow: Throughout the pandemic, we focused on the importance of maintaining mental health, but how important is it to do the same even after the pandemic?

Sauer-Zavala: I think the pandemic served as a way to highlight how important it is to prioritize mental health, because many people who hadn’t previously suffered with anxiety and depression were experiencing these symptoms. We should capitalize on this awareness and prioritize activities that buffer us from stress as we start to re-engage with “normal” life.

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