Whether it’s from social anxiety or health worries, the quarantine lift can cause a lot of fear. One psychologist shares how you can cope.

By Jessica Zucker
June 05, 2020
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After the world sheltered in place for months in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, more than half of the country is starting to reopen. A reported 45 percent of Americans say the current public health crisis has worsened their mental health, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And now that more of us are leaving our homes, returning to work, and eating at restaurants, our collective level of shared anxiety is likely to increase. 

This especially rings true for introverts who may have become accustomed to an isolated environment. Although no one wants coronavirus to keep raging across the country, some people have felt a sense of relief to realize that their lifestyle is more fitting than ever. For workaholics and introverts, life can feel a lot simpler and easier not having to run all over the place and stick to a tight schedule.

Maria Graziella Petrone, a 31-year-old special needs teacher living in New York City, says that the time spent sheltering in place has actually been beneficial. “I was able to work on various goals I have set,” she says. “I set time for me, and engaged in activities such as yoga and meditation to help ease my anxiety.” As someone who suffered from social anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic, Petrone is nervous about “reentering” society, not only for health reasons, but for the loss of balance she has been able to sustain during lockdown.  

“I think it helped me because I was able to work on my personal goals, such as my book,” says Petrone. “I feel like since I am an introvert, [lockdown] didn’t really bother me. I know I am safe in the comfort of my own home.” 

Experiencing increased anxiety as you venture back out after a long period of isolation (into an uncertain world at that) is to be expected. To help manage that anxiety and temper it with a healthy degree of awareness, here are a few steps you can take. 

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Most introverts report that their social anxiety stems from being comfortable with quarantine life. As the country reopens, we all have to learn how to pivot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t assimilate your newfound lifestyle with your upcoming one. The key is to find out which elements from this quarantine period were beneficial. Make the effort to find that bit of stillness by carving out one day a week to be alone, quarantine-style—and reflecting. If you try to prevent your social calendar from feeling like something intimidating, you can take the time to recharge your emotional batteries.

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Social anxiety can often stem from having too much on your plate. Just because you’re returning to society doesn't mean you need to make unrealistic demands on your time. Go easy on yourself. Learn how to be assertive and say no if you’re feeling overwhelmed. You don't always have to go along with everything that everyone wants, and if you don't clearly communicate what you want and need, people won’t know that you are struggling.

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At the same time, you also want to make sure you don’t go through feelings of social anxiety alone. Try to spend more time with positive people who support and believe in you during this time; this will help you weather any rough emotions you feel as you try to make new changes in your life.

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A recent Consumer Reports survey of 4,023 Americans found that 27 percent of adults have trouble sleeping or staying asleep most nights during the pandemic, and 68 percent have trouble sleeping or staying asleep at least one night a week. 

“[Reopening] is going to create what looks like PTSD,” says Michael Brustein, PsyD, a New York-based psychologist specializing in anxiety. “People will become hypervigilant and they’re not going to be sleeping as well because there’s going to be this unknown and lack of safety, similar to when people are at war.” 

A 2013 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep deprivation can actually exacerbate anxiety, so if you’re feeling more anxious than normal and have noticed a change in your sleeping habits, try to find a way to rest and sleep for longer periods of time

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As a psychologist who specializes in reproductive and maternal mental health, I talk to and treat people who are trying to cope with a high degree of uncertainty and social anxiety. And like many of my patients who have experienced pregnancy loss, they go on to become pregnant and can’t overcome the anxiety born out of the possibility that they’ll experience the worst case scenarios again. I know that it is the unknown that is going to make leaving our home anxiety-inducing, or how exactly the social norm will have changed post-quarantine. So much is outside of our control, and in the absence of that control often grows fear and anxiety. 

RELATED: A Psychologist Shares the Best (and Worst) Ways to Deal With Uncertainty

But the future has always been unknown, and the COVID-19 pandemic has put our utter lack of control over the future into full focus. And while that is uncomfortable, to say the least, it is also an opportunity for us to learn to sit uncomfortably in the knowledge that there’s only so much we can manage. To help curb social anxiety, it’s a good idea to start writing your thoughts and experiences in a daily journal to help you recognize when you are falling back into old habits and negative-thinking patterns. 

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So many of us have experienced and are currently experiencing the worst case scenario of a situation we couldn’t have fathomed experiencing—especially the family and friends of those who have lost their lives to COVID-19. But these experiences are not a prediction of the future, and in the end, all we can do is take ownership over what is in our control and be at peace with what is not. 

“It’s about being informed. It’s about knowing what is dangerous and just having a sense of how [coronavirus] is transmitted,” says Brustein. “It’s about doing your part in mitigating the spread, knowing you’re doing your part, and having a plan for how you’re going to manage different situations to reduce the unexpected.” Brustein also suggests taking your time transitioning to more time spent in public places and around people, so you’re not flooded with anxiety. It’s also beneficial to take stock in your comfort level—as it may be different from someone else’s. Always wear a mask and keep a safe distance from others. 

“And if you’ve done that, you have to do the work to separate your anxiety from your reality. When you have anxiety, you might be hypervigilant and amplifying things that do not exist,” Brustein says. 

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Whether you join a brick-and-mortar support group or an online support group, the company of others who understand what you are going through can be very comforting. There are other online resources available to anyone who is struggling with their anxiety as the country begins to reopen, including the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you haven’t established healthy coping mechanisms, reach out to a mental health expert via telehealth. Speaking with a licensed mental health professional can help you “describe your experiences” so you can let go of it. “When you have a shape to it and a form to it, and when you can look at it and get distance from it, it’s easier to see if it’s a pattern that you’re superimposing on the current situation,” Brustein says.

As I counsel many patients who are worried about the future, it is imperative that we learn how to sit with the knowledge that so much of our lives and the situations we are faced with are out of our control. We can make a plan, but in the end we must learn that there is only so much we can do. And that’s OK. 

RELATED: The Pandemic Has Taught Us That It’s OK to Not Be OK

Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and the author of the forthcoming book I HAD A MISCARRIAGE: A Memoir, A Movement (Feminist Press, March 2021).