Managing Post-Pandemic Anxiety

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Tuesday, June 8 2021

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new COVID-19 guidelines for vaccinated adults — including the OK on returning to activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart.

For some, this represented entering a “home stretch” phase of the pandemic’s toll. But for others, the abrupt change created new feelings of confusion and anxiety. In fact, you may (or may not) be surprised to learn that not everyone is ready to go back exactly to the way life was before the pandemic. Even before the CDC loosened their recommendations, an American Psychological Association survey of 3,000 adults living in the U.S. found that almost half didn’t feel comfortable going back to living the way they did before the pandemic. 

For some individuals with diagnosed anxiety disorders, the pandemic exacerbated their condition. The restrictions might have even brought a sense of protection or relief from social interactions. Returning to work, seeing friends, or simply grabbing a latte at a coffee shop may cause intense anxiety for individuals who haven't used their social skills in more than a year.

You might be transitioning back into some familiar routines, such as work commutes or indoor dining. But that doesn't mean life feels or looks like it did before 2020. And after what the world has been through, it can't. In this article, we’ll share three tips to help you navigate the return to “normal” — whatever that looks like for you. 

First, ask yourself what you learned.

You may have battled COVID yourself or lost friends or loved ones to the illness. At the very least, you probably crave more space in the grocery store or on public transit. 

Single parents working essential jobs had to figure out childcare; overwhelming patient loads pushed frontline healthcare workers to their limits; grown adults moved back in with their parents, and the nation as a whole faced a long-overdue racial reckoning.

Still, we figured out a way to get through it. It wasn't easy and may not have been pretty. Chances are you’re still working through some things. But even if you’re wounded and scarred, you’re here. And you're stronger and more resilient for it. So rather than thinking about “going back,” consider how you can carry positive changes forward. 

“Many people learned new things about themselves during the lockdown. Listen to that and use it going forward,” advises Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California. 

“You likely developed new habits and routines during this time, and you may feel pressure to change them rapidly as the world opens up,” Howes adds. “To the degree you are able, move gradually into new routines and see if it is possible to maintain any healthy habits you adopted during lockdown, like taking walks or keeping up with old friends.” 

It may require talks with bosses or loved ones to make these changes permanent, and those may not be comfortable conversations. But it’s worthwhile if it helps you live a fuller, more authentic life. 

Next, be patient with yourself and others. 

Pandemics usually end in two different phases, according to Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times. In her piece, How Pandemics End, she writes about the two endings of a pandemic —  phase one, when cases and deaths sharply decline, and phase two, when fear about the disease fades. 

There’s no timeline for either of these, and they may not happen at the same time. Fear, for example, may linger longer than the virus does.

“Many of us envisioned a ‘day it will be over' scenario, like how we imagined WWII ended or other sudden victories,” Howes says. “In reality, this slow easing into lower levels of restriction will be our norm for a while. We didn’t sign a peace treaty with COVID; we’re making gradual steps toward increased safety. This will take some time.”

In some instances, the changes may be so incremental that you may not notice the shifts. That means there's still a lot of uncertainty, and that can be unsettling. 

But if you think about it, uncertainty is a regular part of life. If, however, you struggle with uncertainty, acknowledge those fears. Then focus on healthy things you can control in the meantime. When your mind begins to wander to the “what ifs” that are out of your hands, find at least one thing (and ideally more) that you can take charge of and own.

Finally, remember that gratitude’s a key factor, too.

Maybe you stopped checking work emails after 7 p.m. and want to maintain work-life boundaries. Maybe you love seeing long-distance friends more often via video. Maybe you’re committed to social justice issues for the first time. Gratitude for the positive changes you’ve made over the last 18 months can help the transition feel less intimidating. 

Remember, just about everyone has fantasized about life going “back to normal” since the first days of the pandemic. It's natural to crave the familiar, especially when faced with uncertainty, fear, and loss. Now that restrictions are easing and vaccinations are on the rise, remind yourself that it’s okay to embrace small (and big) moments of happiness. 

“A year ago, we all felt so much loss — of our daily routines, our social connections, and, sadly, many of us lost loved ones to COVID,” Howes says. “As we regain some of our freedom, try to hold on to the joy you feel about your freedom and re-engaging with people and simple pleasures like eating in a restaurant or having friends over. This may help us appreciate life again and enjoy the small pockets of joy.

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