PHILADELPHIA — Jennifer Merves Robbins never really considered herself an anxious person. She even — for the most part — didn’t find it too stressful to shelter-in-place when she started working from home, helping her two kids transition to online school, and cooking dinner every night. She adjusted.
But the idea of transitioning back into society as COVID-19 is still sickening and killing Americans has Robbins wound up tighter than she’s ever been.
“I have no idea what my life will look like,” said Robbins, 49. “Will we have camp? Will I ever work in an office again? Will we ever feel comfortable eating out? Will I ever be comfortable getting into an elevator with people? I’m frightened when I walk through the city and see people not wearing masks. What will this new normal look like?”
As governors slowly start to move toward reopening parts of their states, and we inch toward a future where most businesses can reopen and we can think about seeing people again, we are on high alert worry.
Our anxiety is threefold:
We’re mourning the loss of the our past lives, especially the idea of not being able to safely hang out with friends at restaurants, clubs or at concerts.
We have no idea what our future will look like, especially our work places. How will we get there? What will our offices look like? And what happens if we emerge from our carefully constructed bubbles and get sick?
And we’re still scared of getting sick. Front-line workers have even more concern: With exposure to more people, they are more likely to be affected.
“We are all emerging from a trauma that has no doubt made us more fearful,” said Richard Orbe-Austin a New York-based psychologist. “In this ‘new normal’ it will become very important that we learn to accept this uncertainty because it’s the feelings that we are losing control that create the anxiety.”
This can be incredibly hard to do when there are no clear answers, Orbe-Austin said. But we don’t have to go through it alone. Here are some ways to emerge on the other side of this, not completely tranquil, but at least a little calmer.
During our months of sheltering in place, we’ve taken a crash course in staying safe from the virus: wearing masks in public, washing our hands, wiping down counters frequently, refraining from touching our faces. Keep that up, says Linda Copel, psychotherapist and a professor at Villanova University’s nursing college. We should also be sure to continue to socially distance when we can, like opting for online banking and curbside pickups. Drive if you feel more comfortable in your car instead of using public transportation. And if you have to take a bus or train, carry hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes with you.
This will help you find a level of comfort because you are doing your best to keep yourself and your family healthy. “We feel better when we are being active in our own safety and security,” Copel said. “So much of our anxiety comes from losing control, so you have to take control when you can.”
It’s hard, but ignore the person walking toward you in the Walmart without a mask. Instead of dwelling on the next person’s insensitivity, practice gratitude, said Thea Gallagher, an assistant professor at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn Medicine.
Engage in the present. Be grateful for your mask. Be grateful for your health. “Trying to control things you can’t control just makes everything worse,” Gallagher said. “Try not to fast-forward your life in an attempt to answer questions the experts haven’t answered yet.”
When we anticipate the worst-case scenario, it hardly ever happens, said Steven Rosenberg, an Elkins Park-based behavioral therapist. How do we keep these scary thoughts from infiltrating our brains? Block out the negativity. That means cutting down on social media and keep news shows to an hour a day. Watch comedies and classic game shows. Better yet, pick up a book. If it’s impossible to shake your biggest fear, write it down and make a note of everything you are doing to prevent it from happening. Take a few deep breaths.
You have to believe your diligence will pay off. “Watch out for the group mentality,” Rosenberg cautions. “That fosters negativity and it will paralyze you.”
Just because the mall may open for business doesn’t mean you have to rush in, Orbe-Austin reminds us. Part of moving forward is accepting that there are risks and knowing that nothing is 100% safe.
This is a time to know your boundaries, said Orbe-Austin. Don’t rush yourself back. Do what feels right for you. “Those who are more concerned with their ‘quality of life’ rather than their ‘actual life’ are going to take chances,” Orbe-Austin said. They won’t mind sitting in a restaurant or getting back in the gym.
But that same person might walk five miles to take the subway. “There is no right answer,” Orbe-Austin said. “There are no true protocols. We all are tasked with doing what’s best for us and not being afraid to advocate for ourselves when we feel uncomfortable.”
This is not the time to give up the Zoom yoga practice you started while in quarantine or stop cooking those healthy meals.
It’s important you keep a schedule of self-care, Gallagher said. “Get outside when you can, make sure you are not socially isolating, meditate, and most importantly be kind to yourself. Have compassion and be patient with yourself. Our old ways of socializing and navigating through life is gone. Be patient with yourself as you adapt to this new normal.”
And be flexible, Gallagher stressed. “Things will change. Our new normal will not stay this way forever.”
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