Five ways to cope with re-entry anxiety

COVID-19 hit our world like a bomb: There was little time to adjust to the sweeping changes that were necessary to keep everyone safe from a mysterious and deadly virus.

Work and school went virtual. Businesses closed. We stopped hugging our loved ones. And face masks and sanitizer became our new normal.

Now, as we begin to return to the lives we lived before the pandemic, many of us are experiencing re-entry anxiety. In fact, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association showed that 49% of respondents said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.

Here is a breakdown of what re-entry anxiety is and some ways you can cope with this new mental health concern.

What is re-entry anxiety?

Re-entry anxiety refers to fear that can accompany letting go of the safeguards that protected us during the COVID-19 pandemic and our re-entry into a world that has been changed by the virus.

This fear can manifest as a reluctance to switch back to pre-pandemic practices, such as going to large in-person gatherings without a face mask. Or it can reveal feelings of unease, sadness, or uncertainty.

It is important to note that any transition can bring a certain amount of anxiety, even transitions that we look forward to and which bring positive changes. Until the bumpiness smooths out, it is quite understandable and “normal” to feel out-of-sorts.

What mental health recommendations are most important as life starts to get back to normal?

Be self-aware

Take stock of your feelings. Do you feel excited or anxious as you contemplate a return to work, school, or social events? What are the easiest re-entry changes you can make that feel the most comfortable?

Communicate

Let others around you know if you need to set limits when it comes to re-entry strategies. Share your fears with those you trust so that they can support you. Talk with a mental health care professional if you are struggling to make necessary changes.

Go gradually

We’re all weary from a long year of quarantining and isolating, so take it slow as you re-enter the world to prevent anxiety from creeping in. It’s OK to take a step forward but then take a break before the next step. Be flexible and adjust as you go.

What are common signs that someone might be experiencing re-entry anxiety?

Re-entry anxiety can range from a manageable level of concern to more intense feelings of panic. If you find yourself feeling a little less enthusiastic than you thought you’d be as you re-enter the post-pandemic world, you may be experiencing re-entry anxiety.

If you are unable to sleep or are having panic attacks when you engage in behaviors that used to be “safe” before COVID-19, you are definitely experiencing re-entry anxiety!

What are some ways people can cope with these feelings?

Cognitive-behavioral strategies are proven, helpful ways to cope with any form of anxiety, including re-entry anxiety. By targeting both our behaviors and our thought patterns, we can loosen the grip that fear has on us.

In terms of behavioral strategies

  • Use deep breathing to slow your heart rate and tell your body that it’s not “fight or flight” time.
  • Create a series of gradual steps toward a goal, such as shopping at the grocery store where not everyone is wearing a mask.

In terms of cognitive strategies (understanding through thought or experiences)

  • Take careful stock of your fearful thoughts. Reframe negative beliefs, such as “We will never beat COVID-19!” with neutral or positive ones, such as “There is good evidence that the vaccines are working and social gatherings can be safe again.”
  • Mindfulness, or cultivating practices that help you stay present-focused, is another great way to beat re-entry anxiety.
  • In addition to these options, it is always helpful to seek social support, whether in-person or virtually. Talking to others and listening to their concerns, as well, normalizes our feelings and gives us hope for better days ahead.

When is it necessary to get professional help for re-entry anxiety or another mental health concern?

If you are experiencing mood changes—including anxiety or depression—that you can’t seem to manage on your own and which are affecting your day-to-day functioning, please seek help from a mental health care professional.

Symptoms to be on the lookout for include

  • Sleep trouble (too much or too little)
  • Changes in eating or appetite (including weight gain or loss)
  • Sadness and/or frequent tearfulness
  • Anger or irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Frequent worried thoughts
  • Panic attacks (intense physiological symptoms that often feel like a health emergency)
  • Difficulty enjoying things that normally make you feel good
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Difficulty concentrating or staying on-task
  • Agitation or restlessness

We provide care for a full range of mental health concerns and psychiatric disorders at UI Health Care to people of all ages. Each visit takes place in a safe, comfortable, and confidential setting.

Please note: Suicidal feelings are a medical emergency and should be treated immediately. Suicidal feelings may include hopelessness and helplessness that make you want to “escape” or no longer be alive.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these feelings, call 911 and/or go to your nearest emergency department for help.

Last reviewed: 
June 2021

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