As vaccination rates increase and pandemic restrictions are lifted, the return to life as we knew it before the COVID-19 health crisis is finally in sight. But for some, the impending “return to normal” is a source of anxiety. But why?

We’ve been living in a bubble for 18 months, it was a foreign bubble to us, but in time, we learned how to adapt and accept it to a degree and that became a new ‘normal.” Anxiety can become a self-imposed routine. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, canceling plans offers relief, and over time that continued pattern becomes a reoccurring habit which prevents you from facing and managing your anxiety.

Now we are facing another lifestyle shift, back to life before COVID-19, which can be frightening for some of us. But understand that not all anxiety isn’t bad. Anxiety is a naturally occurring internal alarm system that alerts us perceived threats. Think about a procrastinated project, an impending test at school or a driver swerving into your lane. It becomes a disorder when it begins disrupting your day-to-day life, if you feel routinely anxious for no reason at all or if it’s out of proportion to the threat.

Post-COVID Stress Disorder

The global pandemic was a traumatic event and studies show mass traumatic events come with long-lasting effects. It’s no surprise considering the factors we dealt with like living in fear and uncertainty for an extended period of time. Experts have termed it Post-Covid Stress Disorder. The effect varies based on the impact the pandemic had on a person such as losing a loved one to the virus and grief, loss of a job, managing children learning from home or being isolated at home for months.

Even though emotional responses are part of a normal reaction to a stressful situation, trauma actually changes patterns in your brain. It causes you to carry the emotional distress long after the events have passed. Some common responses may include:

  • Anger or irritability
  • Rapid heartbeat, sweating, or difficulty breathing
  • Negative thoughts
  • Excessive worrying
  • Beginning or increased substance abuse

Addressing re-entry anxiety

Even if you can’t relate, chances are someone around you still feels unprepared to go back to normal. We’re all figuring out how to be social creatures again, which is already awkward and exhausting. There’s going to be an adjustment phase, and people with preexisting mental health difficulties may have more trouble.

The goal of anxiety treatment is to get you back to a more ‘normal’ world as soon as possible. For some people, it can be achieved through self-care practices like meditation, mindfulness, eating healthy, getting proper rest and exercise. You may consider small steps to begin acclimating to the changes. If you’ll be returning to the office, drive by the building ahead of the actual return date, reassess your work wardrobe and put things in order, or reconnect with a coworker you haven’t seen in person to catch up. If you’re anxious about joining large group gatherings and public events, begin with some smaller get-togethers with a few close friends to get re-acclimated to social situations.

Those simple actions can help prepare your mind for the readjustment. However, if symptoms are affecting how you go through your daily activities and lasts longer than two weeks, it’s time to seek help with a counselor or therapist.

Susan Kozak has been a licensed social worker for the past 35 years and currently serves as the executive director of Community Care Services, a position she has held since 2011.