Q: Ever since Covid restrictions have lifted, I’ve been feeling anxious in crowds and more awkward in social situations. How can I get back to feeling “normal” out there again?
A: These days, a lot of people are feeling what’s been termed “re-entry anxiety.” I’ve also heard it called “FONO” (like FOMO), Fear of Normal, or “FOGO,” Fear of Getting Out. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association reports that almost 50% of Americans feel anxious about returning to in-person interactions.
For many of us, anxiety during quarantine served as a protective factor to help keep us safe (wearing masks, washing hands, etc). But now that it’s safer to re-enter the world, it’s making it harder to engage and get back to the activities that will help lift us out of that anxious, or depressed, state.
After 16 months of reduced connection, it also makes sense that our bodies and minds would be telling us “no” or “beware” in social situations. Our social skills have atrophied. When your brain puts things in deep storage for a while, you start to lose them. The good news is, once you pull them out and start using them, they can begin to come back.
The best response to what our brains are telling us (“no”) is to reduce avoidance. To engage in the very activities that make us anxious. Because the more we practice tolerating uncertainty or distress, eventually we find we can handle it and that our fears won’t actually come true.
This doesn’t mean you have to run out to a huge concert or festival every chance you get. Take it slowly. Start with a walk or dinner outside with a friend. Then you can work your way up to, say, a shopping trip, or social event. Maybe bring along a partner for moral support. We’re all finding our way back to “normal” together, so chances are, they could use the support, too.
Above all, try to give yourself patience and a little grace as you ease back in. Think of what you would tell a friend about their anxiety … and be as kind to yourself as you would be to your friend.
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