During the year-plus of pandemic-enforced confinement, many of us fantasized about the restoration of pre-COVID life. We compiled mental lists of activities we couldn’t wait to resume, of people we couldn’t wait to hug. Vaccinated by spring, we prepared for a summer of celebration as we would shed our masks, reconnect with friends, dine out and — apologies to Prince — party like it was 2019.
It hasn’t necessarily gone as imagined. After more than a year of wearing masks, keeping their distance and using screens to interact with friends, co-workers and classmates, some have reentered society with trepidation and unease. That’s partly because of uncertainty about the remaining risk, particularly as the delta variant and vaccine hesitancy contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases over the summer. But for many, the anxiety goes beyond that.
“We have entered the next stage of coping with this pandemic,” says Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D. ’91, a psychologist at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “As we move toward a new normal, we would expect that to be associated with a great deal of anxiety and an increase in mental health problems.”
After any extended period of isolation, we become accustomed to the solitude and develop coping habits that can prove difficult to break.
Maidenberg, who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders, says he has heard from many individuals who are worried about reconnecting socially. They fear that they’ll have little to talk about or that their rusty social skills will translate to awkward silences. For introverts, being around others requires considerable effort, he notes, and in that sense, the pandemic-era withdrawal was kind of a relief.
After any extended period of isolation — whether it’s the result of a long illness or a once-in-a-century global pandemic — we become accustomed to the solitude and develop coping habits that can prove difficult to break, Maidenberg says. Reintegrating into a world of crowds and social gatherings can lead us to feel vulnerable and unsure, particularly after more than a year in which the specter of a deadly disease has lurked among us. Maidenberg notes that fear in the face of a threat is an evolutionarily developed survival instinct. “It’s a natural reaction to cope with fear by trying to minimize or escape from it,” he says. “And once we learn to be afraid of something, learning not to be afraid can be a challenge.”
For anyone feeling less than giddy about the return to our pre-COVID ways, Maidenberg offers the following advice:
Everyone cultivated their own strategies for dealing with pandemic-related anxieties, be they healthy (staying home, wearing masks) or less so (going overboard on alcohol and unhealthy foods). The societal reopening compels us to decide which coping strategies to keep, which to revise and which to discard. “It’s not as simple as it sounds,” Maidenberg says, “because it’s a reversal of something that felt safe and became familiar over that long period of time.” Amid ongoing uncertainties, Maidenberg recommends that individuals struggling with how to navigate the evolving terrain approach their decisions with caution but also curiosity, using common sense and reliable data in resuming desired behaviors and activities.
As we recalibrate which activities we deem safe, Maidenberg advocates not jumping back in too quickly, particularly if you’re prone to anxiety. “For some people, it’s more helpful to ease into things in a systematic way,” he says. “Decide what you want to accomplish, then choose one thing at a time that makes you apprehensive and work to overcome that before moving on to the next one.” However, keep in mind that your recalibration’s endpoint doesn’t have to resemble where you were pre-COVID. “Some people appreciated the slower pace brought on by the pandemic,” Maidenberg says. “This is an opportunity to take stock and make purposeful decisions about what we want our lives to look like now.”
Verbalize Your Concerns
For those who continue to struggle with the transition, Maidenberg urges openness: Given our common experience enduring the pandemic, verbalizing anxieties will almost certainly elicit empathy. “Being open about our goals and any difficulties we’re having not only allows others to help us, it also rekindles the sense of community that most of us lost to some extent and helps to draw us closer to the people we’re disclosing to,” Maidenberg says.
Similarly, given the reality that people have with varying interpretations of what is acceptable risk, Maidenberg recommends communicating your comfort level on personal contact and planning protective strategies to establish boundaries for what you will or won’t do — but without judging others who feel less or perhaps more cautious.
Mourn What You’ve Lost
Even from a social and physical distance, the experience shared by all during the pandemic is loss — the lost lives of people close to us, the lost physical health for those who got sick and the loss of life-stage milestones as time stood still. In the transition to post-COVID life, we shouldn’t gloss over these losses. “We were all affected in one way or another. It’s important not to rush back without taking the time to reflect, mourn and make sense of what’s happened to us,” Maidenberg says.
Manage Your Expectations
Setting sky-high expectations for the return only invites disappointment. “A very common trigger of anxiety relates to people’s perception of the environment and the people around them — what you should be doing and how you should be feeling,” Maidenberg says. He advises approaching the venturing-out period with the knowledge that it’s a process, accepting any misgivings or disappointments you experience.
When You Need It, Seek Help
Maidenberg says the stressors associated with the pandemic activated vulnerabilities and mental health predispositions that might have been manageable in the past. He recommends that anyone experiencing symptoms of distress that begin to impact daily functioning — sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, a loss of interest in pleasurable activities, recurrent incidents of severe anxiety or fear — seek a professional consultation right away. While the mental health system was already strained pre-COVID, Maidenberg points to one silver-lining outcome of the pandemic that makes services more accessible: the transition to telehealth counseling and structured psychotherapy, with data suggesting it’s an effective alternative to face-to-face services.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s October 2021 issue.