In the last few weeks, I have been living a fully vaccinated, post-pandemic life. I have traveled, gone to the movies, eaten in restaurants without a mask. It feels like I am doing something just slightly rebellious but enjoyable, like skipping school on a spring day.
But there is something else I have noticed. I often feel anxious and have less patience with people, traffic and noise. I also have noticed I am not the only one. I can see it everywhere. Not only have I been yelled at or honked at in traffic, but I have been the honker. We are not used to being around each other. We’ve forgotten how to share, and we’ve really forgotten how to share the road.
Everything changed this past year, and now it feels as though everything should just naturally shift back to the way it was pre-pandemic. But it isn’t happening that way.
This past year has required a great deal of flexibility on the part of everyone. Jokes were made about how introverts were living their best lives while the most extroverted had to learn how to be their own source of entertainment. Many began to work from home and learn an entirely new way to communicate and socialize.
For churchgoers, the pandemic shifted people into two extreme directions. Many of those who were sporadic church attenders found online church services the ideal solution. The expression “come as you are” to worship took on a whole new meaning but in a positive way. Some reported a closer walk with God and better daily worship practices. For others, the transition to virtual Sunday school classes, small groups or worship services felt disconnected and disjointed.
What has not changed, however, is our individual and collective anxiety. Feeling anxious occurs when we are unsure about the future or an outcome, particularly if we perceive it as a negative. We cannot deny that this past year, particularly as a result of COVID, was an anxiety producing one. At the beginning of the pandemic, we felt anxious about the risk of contracting COVID and the impact it would have on our health or well-being or that of our loved ones. Today, we feel anxious about shifting back to our previous view of “normal.”
“Feeling anxious occurs when we are unsure about the future or an outcome, particularly if we perceive it as a negative.”
While humans are wired for connectedness and social interaction, even the most extroverted become conditioned to less social interaction. For therapists, there was no denying the increase in clinical anxiety. Studies from the CDC and the American Psychological Association reveal anxiety increased more than 11% in the last year, and nearly half of all Americans reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. The impact of economic uncertainty, political polarization and racial division added to our collective anxiety.
We were forced to adapt to the change. We looked for and found the positives. We enjoyed our families, adopted pets and healthier eating or exercise habits, shopped online, strengthened friendships virtually, connected to our neighbors, and became more productive in our jobs. Even wild animals enjoyed fewer humans when national parks closed. The idea of giving up these benefits, while also facing the anxiety of COVID risk or exposure, has many facing a new wave of anxiety: Reentry anxiety.
As you move forward in the weeks ahead, know you are not alone. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review found that 80% of remote workers do not want to return to the office full time, a tremendous shift from the 72% who wished to return to their offices a year ago.
“The shift back to our lives, our offices or our churches will be with mixed emotions and added stress.”
The shift back to our lives, our offices or our churches will be with mixed emotions and added stress. We are not used to the drive or the noise. We are leaving the familiar. What can you do to help reduce your feelings of anxiety in the weeks or months ahead?
- Recognize the emotions you are feeling and name them. Is it sadness? Fear? Anger? Grief? Any of these emotions would be normal under the circumstances, but when you name them, you increase your personal insight and emotional intelligence. And when you accomplish that, you are less likely to misdirect your emotions onto others.
- Take small steps. Traffic, socializing with coworkers and even meal planning are a few of the things you can begin to prepare for and adapt to sooner, rather than later. Increased productivity at work-related tasks is one of the primary reasons people do not want to return to the office — because there are fewer interruptions and no commute times. In the car, bus or train, plan to listen to an audiobook, a devotional or music that will be calming for you.
- Be patient with yourself and others. You may have to adjust your thinking around social interaction. Plan times to meet with your friends or coworkers so you do not feel inundated with unexpected interactions. Be patient with the people who are less friendly than you recall. They are having to rewire their brains to adapt to the increase in social interaction.
- Set healthy boundaries at work. You may want to give those you work closely with a heads-up that reentry will require adjustments to your schedule. Establish set times when you are available for interruptions or meetings. Shut your door if you need the uninterrupted time to complete an important task or to remain productive. Leave work at the office so you do not fall into the previous habit of working at home. This will help you feel less depleted at the end of the day.
- Ask for what you need. It is lovely when people intuitively understand what we are thinking or feeling and respond well. But most likely, most everyone around you is feeling similarly. Ask for what you need and give grace to those who fall short. Not only will this reduce your anxiety and frustration, it likely will reduce the anxiety and frustration of others.
- Talk to those you trust. Friendships and close confidants are wonderful. Therapy is too. Regardless of who you turn to, make time to process what is happening with someone you trust. The next few months will be filled with new stressors, and it is likely the needs of those around you will be great. Make time to manage these stressors before they became unmanageable.
Overall, recognize the difference between feeling anxious and having anxiety. That sounds odd, but there is a difference. Feeling anxious is fleeting, is biological, and it impacts everyone. Our bodies were designed to protect us when we feel threatened or fearful with an increased heart rate, rapid breathing or sweaty palms. This allows us to run away from danger or to think quickly when faced with a threat. When the threat is over, the body returns to normal. However, if you continue to feel physically anxious well after a threat has passed or when there is no threat at all, you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.
If you believe you are experiencing an increased level of anxiety that does not pass, feels overwhelming or more intense than the situation calls for, speak to your doctor or a licensed therapist. There are many ways to treat anxiety but there are also specific treatments designed to treat specific types of anxiety disorders. A professional will help determine the best treatment plan.
Amy Curtis serves as senior director of counseling for Buckner Children and Family Services, a Dallas-based nonprofit serving vulnerable children and families.