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Managing "Re-entry Anxiety"

When the COVID-19 lockdown went into place during mid-March there was no way we could have predicted just how disruptive it would be to our daily life. Hunkering down at home for 24/7, safe from the viral windstorm, we have certainly all incurred some lingering effect of social isolation. But after months of staying home, living in our own little bubbles, we are now faced with an equally limiting angst – “re-entry anxiety.”

Similar to generalized anxiety where we experience anxiety as it pertains to certain situations and environments, re-entry anxiety can come in a variety of forms. For some there is ongoing fear of contracting the virus as re-entry requires, we slowly expand our risk of exposure by reentering public spaces. For others, those who have had a positive experience from stay at home measures, there is anxiety surrounding the idea of adapting back to a routine of regular socialization and public interaction. After spending an extended period of time at home, forced into creating new routines, the new norm has become safe and comfortable. The thought of adding COVID compliant measures around a re-entry routine can seem exhausting. No matter how you look at it COVID-19 continues to create uncertainty and ambiguity, not only for life today but what it will look like tomorrow.

If you have followed ant of my previously articles on COVID-19 and mental health, you will be familiar with the notion that some anxiety is both healthy and adaptive. As society and the public begins to reopen and we re-emerge from the safety of our homes, a healthy dose of anxiety keeps us mindful of the necessary precautions we must all continue to practice in the months to come.

After many discussions with some of my clients, I am reminded that we are not all well practiced at calmly and patiently talking ourselves through stepping outside the safety of our homes. If you are having difficulty finding the right balance to begin re-entry see how the following tips can help.

Tiny Steps = Big Success

Following this phase, continue to increase your exposure in larger or longer amounts. Perhaps you find yourself ready to take longer walks to busier public areas such as the supermarket or a quiet coffee shop. A common cognitive-based technique, known as Exposure Therapy, is an effective means of learning to manage sources of fear and anxiety. The premise here involves safely exposing ourselves to small, but tolerable, amounts of discomfort associated with the feared stimulus.

Utilizing this approach can be equally effective when working with re-entry anxiety. For some, this might mean taking short walks (with facemask) outside of your apartment just to get comfortable having others pass you on the street. As you do, be mindful of taking slow, deep breathes, for every step you take. After repeated exposure at a basic level you will begin to notice a reduction in anxiety.

Avoid “Avoidance” Tendencies

The negative effects of social isolation can be seen within just a few short weeks. The longer-term impact of social isolation is believed to be in direct proportion to the duration of time spent in isolation. As avoidance tendencies tend to be used as a means of mitigating anxiety, you can appreciate the need to practice steps toward re-entry as soon as possible.

Although several states across the nation are only now seeing rising cases of COVID-19, there is a safe chance we can continue efforts toward re-entry given we all abide recommended safety and protective measures. Limiting our social circle to just a few individuals who are willing to openly discuss and adhere to practicing strict means of protection (the use of masks and six-feet distancing) is one way to enjoy re-entry by socializing with others outside of the home.

Find a Re-entry Buddy

When adopting any new behavior or routine having a re-entry buddy who will be both supportive and available to explore can make a difference. What you will likely discover as you both plan to step forth are the individual differences in tolerance levels for different environments.

For this reason, make sure to openly discuss what environments and situations you are both equally comfortable pursuing. Take time to notice those particular circumstances in which you might be more comfortable, but your buddy is not. Noticing these differences can provide an excellent means for supporting each and possibly finding new strategies for coping with re-entry as time goes by.

Professional Support

One thing that has emerged from living in a pandemic: it’s now easier to connect with others from the safety of our home with the use of virtual meetings and tele-health providers. With the click of a button can immediately connect with mental health professionals for support from the safety and privacy of our homes. Although it’s not intended to replace in person sessions, I have received excellent feedback from my clients on just how useful and effective tele-health can be.

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