Are you still afraid to go out?

Published April 24, 2022, 3:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

How to overcome re-entry anxiety

It’s been a rollercoaster ride since March 2020. At first, unable to believe that something as abrupt and lifechanging as a global pandemic could happen in our lifetime, we thought it was a temporary setback. “Two weeks, maybe a month,” we told ourselves, but two weeks later, a month later, six months later, and now more than two years later, we find ourselves unable to imagine life as it used to be. But with most of the world, especially in places with high vaccine rates, lifting restrictive Covid-19 protocols, we now have a choice: Must we stay in our safe cocoon or must we start venturing out?

If you are one of those whose heartbeat accelerates upon seeing sports events returning to capacity crowds or your friends together maskless at restaurants or your favorite concert stars performing before a live audience again, don’t despair. There’s a name for your condition. It’s called re-entry anxiety or—although it’s a bit of a misnomer because Covid-19 is still around—post-pandemic stress.

If you feel all stressed out as things return to normal, you are undergoing re-entry anxiety. If you feel that there’s no safer way than keeping things the way they have been since March 2020, you are, in fact, right, but then remember, early in the lockdowns, when it all seemed like some dystopian movie, that even you did not think it possible that we could go on this way, just hiding. If you feel we’re all better off cooped up, even if you are aware that millions are losing their jobs, businesses are collapsing, markets are crashing, economies are now going into debt distress while the world is headed for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it’s all right, you’re not being selfish, you’re not being uncaring, you’re just undergoing post-pandemic stress.

The truth is, regardless of how much we or the people we love have lost to the pandemic, we are all in grief. All reeling from a still ongoing, unprecedented crisis that no one alive today have experienced before, we are all harboring a trauma.

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength. —Charles Spurgeon

One of the best definitions of trauma is from American and Canadian neuro-tech company Unyte, which defines it as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.”

To help yourself address your re-entry anxiety, we might be able to apply some of the principles behind recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here are some of the key ways.

Accept that Covid is now part of our reality.

Among the most important steps toward recovery from trauma is acceptance. We must consider ourselves a victim of Covid-19, but also, at this point, we must consider ourselves a survivor. Some of us may be racked with guilt over not having done anything productive enough during the series of lockdowns over the past two years, but to have survived the Covid world this long is triumph enough. Keep that feeling of triumph with you as you navigate this new world while also keeping in mind that you need to be extra-careful.

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Take extra care of your body.

There is a lesson from this pandemic that we should have by now taken to heart—That the world out there is no longer as safe as we once thought, and therefore we must be well-equipped to face its dangers, including SARS-CoV-2. Get enough sleep, exercise, drink a lot of water, take balanced meals, boost your immune system. Consider your physical health your shield and armor against our invisible, infinitesimal, and insidious enemies in this Covid era.

Reduce your exposure to the event that caused you trauma.

There was a time we knew so little about Covid-19 and even now, it’s possible we don’t know enough. It was understandable we spent so much time learning about it at the risk of continuously overwhelming ourselves with bad news. Now, with sufficient protection, such as full vaccination with booster, we can afford to put a cap on our exposure to Covid news and information. This is the reason most governments, including the Philippines, has done away with daily updates on Covid case numbers.

Reconnect with friends and family.

Or if you have stayed connected with them even through the physical distance of pandemic lockdowns, reach out more. Life’s challenges are easier to handle when you have people rooting for you, holding your hand through the struggles, pushing you in times you feel unable to plod on, or keeping tabs of your breakthroughs. These people can also help ease you through your pandemic fears as you take small steps back into the world. Do something fun or relaxing. If you’re still afraid of big crowds, try a picnic with just a friend or two in a private garden or a pool party with just five of them or a hike on a desolate hill. Psychiatrists call this “exposure therapy.”

It will also help if you and your circle of trust can do something positive, like getting involved in relief efforts for the recent tropical depression Agaton or a fund drive or even neighborhood cleanup drive. If nothing else, a project like those can help get your mind off the pandemic.

Now, slowly—but surely—get back into your routine.

Once you’ve had enough practice, you can start slowly reclaiming your life. It’s no longer as bad as it had been. The truth is, it is also no longer so scary, as long as you are fully vaccinated and boosted and in perfect health. In some cities, such as in Europe, the mask mandates have even been lifted. Not all restaurants now require a vaccine pass. You can even travel to some countries without having to present Covid-related documents. But it’s still a Covid world, so do what you think is safest for you while you reactivate your dreams and go chasing them.

In 2020, a Time magazine cover said, “We must get it into our heads that our lives have changed.” They sure have. We have changed as well. But the change doesn’t seem as bad as we imagined it in 2020. It looks like we are snapping back into pre-pandemic normalcy. After all, life is life even in a pandemic and, with some effective containment measures in place, we can finally start living it again.