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6 Tips From a Therapist For Coping with Reopening Anxiety

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Illustration of a girl in a mask holding herself anxiously.
With more people vaccinated, opportunities to go out are everywhere. But you’re not alone if socializing again is taking a while to get used to. (Oleksiik/iStock)

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Before the pandemic, Jorge Courtade spent Friday and Saturday nights making people dance as Juanny Depp of the DJ collective Amor Digital. And at his day job at Youth Art Exchange, he worked with San Francisco high school students on creative projects and events at the nonprofit’s bustling Excelsior District art space.

With parties canceled and Youth Art Exchange programs mostly online, Courtade’s social circle has shrunk significantly over the past year. Before he got vaccinated, he rarely saw even his parents and closest friends.

But now that bars and movie theaters are partially reopened in many Bay Area counties, and Californians over the age of 16 will be eligible for the vaccine on April 15, he’s been dealing with an unexpected sense of anxiety. The idea of re-entering social life feels daunting even though he’s spent the last year missing how things used to be. “It feels like a disconnect between my desire and my hesitancy about going out to do leisurely-type activities,” he says.

“I think we’re all kind of coming through a collective, traumatic experience,” Courtade elaborates. “Even though I might be relatively protected from the virus, we spent a whole year trying to protect ourselves and others from it. I guess it’s kind of ingrained in my head; I don’t want to be around other people if I can avoid it.”

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Courtade isn’t alone. San Francisco psychotherapist Ken Stamper sees clients who’ve reported challenges navigating the new social environment as we all continue to grapple with the health concerns, fear and grief the past year has wrought.

Stamper says the pandemic has brought out a fundamental human fear about how much of the world is out of our control. “All the fears that kind of live in our subconscious—about ‘Are we safe?’—are really at the forefront now,” he says.

In a recent interview, Stamper gave KQED readers a few tips for navigating the transition in the months ahead.

Take Things Slow—and Beware of FOMO

Everyone’s comfort level is going to be different, so it’s OK to meet yourself where you’re at. “I think there’s going to be a tension between that,” Stamper says. “I want to do all the things, and feeling anxiety about going out and doing all of the things—or some of the things or even one of the things.”

Stamper says it might be helpful to think of venturing out as exposure therapy. “You might start by just going out to a restaurant for an hour and being with someone that you feel safe with, and limiting it to a certain amount of time,” he says.

Once you try out an activity you haven’t done in a while, be mindful of how you feel; remember that the past year has changed all of us. “It’s like when you’re really hungry and your eyes are bigger than what’s on your plate,“ Stamper says. “You have to listen to yourself when you’re full and not push yourself too far. And you might get full pretty quickly right now.”

Listen to Your Body

Stamper advises thinking ahead to what the activity will entail—and listening to what your body is telling you before, during and after going out. “Our body tells us a lot about what maybe we don’t want our head to recognize,” he says. “Maybe your heart’s beating fast. Maybe you’re feeling a surge of anxiety that you feel in your hands, your feet. Those things might happen. So you might want to ask yourself, is this something I really want to do?”

Mindfulness is a helpful tool to tap into what your body and intuition are telling you. Guided body scan meditations (where you check in with each body part and notice the sensations) can help you get in tune with those signals, and plenty of them are available on YouTube as well as apps like InsightTimer and Calm.

If meditation isn’t your speed, wind down with a relaxing activity that helps you get grounded, like taking a walk and noticing your surroundings.

Don’t Judge Yourself So Harshly

After a year of looking over your shoulder at the grocery store, it’s normal that you might experience some anxiety about going out even if you’re vaccinated and have a very low chance of getting COVID. Acknowledging the anxiety is there and accepting it without judgment is often the first step to feeling better.

“I’m encouraging people to not beat themselves up if they feel like it’s too much and they want to leave—really give yourself permission to take care of yourself and not push yourself,” he says.

Stamper also notes that people might be temped to drink more to ease their discomfort in social situations. If that’s you, take it as another sign of stress and channel your attention to more constructive ways of coping.

“Everyone’s talking about how there might be this urge to get completely hedonistic. But some of that is actually blunting how we feel when we’re anxious,“ he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having a couple of drinks, necessarily. But I want people to really listen to themselves.”

Be Mindful of COVID-19 Grief

One in three Americans is grieving someone lost to COVID right now. So even though spring has sprung and it feels like a time for celebration, some of your social energy might be better spent seeking in-person support from people who’ve experienced a similar loss.

“In terms of going out again, we’re all thinking, woohoo, party, fun, all the things that we miss doing,” Stamper says. “But it’s important, especially if you’re experiencing grief, to understand that that might not actually be what you need, or it certainly might not be all of what you need.”

Although most grief support groups—and other mental health resources like 12-step programs—are still meeting online, they may go back to in-person in the coming months as case numbers go down in the Bay Area and more people get vaccinated.

In addition to grieving loved ones, people are dealing with other forms of loss as well. “I think there is a lot of grief that teens are experiencing in terms of having lost a year of their adolescence that they’ll never get back,” Stamper says, noting that isolation has been particularly hard on young people, who are in a phase of development where they learn from socializing.

Meanwhile, parents might be torn between encouraging their kids to get out of the house and worrying for their safety. “I think one way to combat that is to do some activities together, to go out on the weekend and do some things with each other that feel safe and connecting,” he says, “that demonstrate to everyone that it’s OK to be out in the world again.”

Put Anger in Perspective

In addition to sadness and anxiety, many people are dealing with anger at the U.S. government for the failures of its COVID-19 response and the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Or they might feel resentment towards people who’ve refused to wear masks or get vaccinated, traveled unnecessarily or partook in other activities that lead to the spread of the virus.

“There’s lots of people who are doing things that you wouldn’t agree with. And that’s always going to be true,” Stamper says. “So it’s really important to not obsess on things that you can’t control. And of course, in the pandemic, everything was out of control. So our brains are kind of fighting for some control somewhere.”

Seek Greater Meaning

Grief experts say that “finding meaning” is the sixth stage of healing. One way to do that could be to get involved in your community.

“There’s going to be a real urge for people to try and find meaning about what happened and find meaning in their experience,” says Stamper. “And I think volunteering could be a super powerful way to do that, to do something that’s a little bit bigger than just yourself.”

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The pandemic laid bare how fragile (and, in many cases, nonexistent) American social safety nets are, and pushed millions of people into poverty. The vaccine presents an opportunity for people to get involved in mutual aid efforts like food drives and helping elders in Oakland Chinatown—or whatever activity aligns with their values.

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