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The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of Americans into social isolation for over a year.
To limit COVID-19 spread, many companies allowed employees to work from home and schools shifted to virtual learning. Many businesses changed their operations, like restaurants going to takeout only. And many families and friends gathered virtually instead of in person for holidays and other events.
Times are beginning to return to normal, especially for people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fully vaccinated people can resume many of their pre-pandemic activities with less risk.
With COVID-19 restrictions loosening, people are returning to work, school, and gatherings with friends and families. But isolation may have a lasting mental impact.
Social anxiety about returning to pre-pandemic life is normal. You can take steps to manage any mental health challenges you’re facing.
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COVID-19 and Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Stress in America™ 2020 report, 67% of adults in the United States experienced more stress over the course of the pandemic. An even higher number — 78% — said the pandemic was a significant cause of stress.
Many factors cause people to feel stress. Both global (COVID-19, the situation in the country) and personal (finances, social isolation) triggers can cause mental health burdens.
Even with the country getting back to normal, mental health challenges may remain. The effects of social isolation may cause you to feel anxiety about returning to pre-pandemic life.
According to a March 2021 APA poll, 49% of U.S. adults said they felt uneasy about returning to in-person activities after the pandemic.
“When we don’t do something, we get out of practice,” says Melissa Brown, PsyD, clinical manager, Psychological Associates, UPMC Harrisburg. “How do we have social conversations, and how do we do that again? How do we get reacclimated?”
How to Handle Post-COVID-19 Anxiety
If you’re experiencing anxiety or other mental health challenges after COVID-19, you’re not alone.
Maybe you gained the so-called “quarantine 15″ and worry that people are going to judge you. Or maybe you fell out of your normal routines and are having trouble adapting to going back to school or the office. Or maybe you just feel uneasy about seeing people in person again after more than a year.
In many cases, you can help yourself overcome those challenges.
“Once people get back into the swing of things, I think it probably will reduce in intensity from how we first experience it,” Dr. Brown says.
“I liken it to the first day of school. Even if we’ve been going to the same school for four years, we still get those first-day jitters. But after time passes, it’s usually not there anymore. Even the second or third day, it reduces the intensity.”
Here are some ways you can relieve some of the pressure you’re feeling.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Often, the first step to overcoming a problem is to recognize it in the first place. Trying to bury your feelings may cause bigger problems in the long run.
If you’re feeling anxious about returning to pre-pandemic life, acknowledge that anxiety. Then, you can start to take the steps to overcome it.
“It’s recognizing and validating that you personally have these feelings,” Dr. Brown says. “Those are important to at least look at and acknowledge, as well as talk about and process and not just ignore them.”
2. Control what you can control
The COVID-19 pandemic took a lot of decisions out of people’s hands. And you still may not have control over certain parts of your life — like whether you will have to return to the office.
You may feel uncertain about those things you can’t control. But trying to get a grip on the parts of your life you have control over can help.
Dr. Brown recommends setting a routine.
“You can control when you go to bed, when you get up, how much exercise you get, how much TV you’re watching, what foods you’re eating,” she says. “When we can focus on those things, that often reduces our stress level.”
Setting a routine can help your physical health, too — which in turn can help your mental health. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good amount of sleep can have a positive impact.
3. Try a practice run
Are you returning to work and feeling anxious about being off your pre-pandemic routine?
A practice day may help. Go through a dry run by waking up earlier, getting dressed, and getting ready for the commute to work.
“It’s getting yourself reacclimated,” Dr. Brown says. “To getting up earlier, to making it easier. So when that deadline of returning to work in person happens, you’re not trying to wake up two hours earlier than you have been waking up for the last year and a half and putting that extra stress on yourself.”
4. Start slow
You don’t necessarily have to immediately restart your pre-pandemic life. It can take some time to build up a routine again, especially after a year in quarantine.
Start by doing something you feel comfortable with — maybe an outdoor meal at a restaurant with a group of friends. If that goes well, you can gradually build yourself back up.
5. Don’t beat yourself up
People are often their own toughest critics, and the pandemic left many people alone with their thoughts.
Maybe you’re worried that you gained weight during the pandemic and everyone will notice. Or maybe you think people will judge you for feeling anxious.
Dr. Brown says people have a tendency to project their own feelings onto others. She says it’s important to recognize whatever you’re feeling and, if necessary, get help. Don’t let your worries overwhelm you by keeping them bottled up.
6. Talk to someone
Sometimes, the best way to solve your problems is to talk about them. Try reaching out to a friend or family member to talk about what you’re feeling. Or schedule a therapy appointment with a licensed counselor.
“If it is really becoming intrusive, maybe it’s interrupting the way you are sleeping or the way you are eating. If you find yourself worrying about it all day, every day, then it might be time to talk to a professional,” Dr. Brown says. “They can help you reacclimate and get some further guidance on what might be happening.”
To schedule an appointment at UPMC, call 1-800-533-8762 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or schedule an appointment online.
American Medical Association, What Doctors Wish Patients Knew About Post-COVID Anxiety. Link
American Psychological Association, Coronavirus Stress: Majority of Americans Never Imagined Pandemic Would Last This Long. Link
American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2020. Link
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, How to Manage Post-COVID Anxiety. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, When You've Been Fully Vaccinated. Link
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