Health

Why Returning to Normal Can Trigger Anxiety

Many people have developed new life routines. And we're out of practice with things we used to tolerate in daunting social scenarios.

By Leslie NemoMay 12, 2021 6:30 PM
(Credit: Pearl PhotoPix/Shutterstock)

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For once, some of the graphs illustrating the pandemic’s progression in the U.S. soothe more than they alarm. COVID-19 cases are dropping and the number of people vaccinated is rising. As the balance shifts, some people are getting together with friends, eating out and considering a full-fledged return to the office, activities they might have abandoned when the pandemic began. 

Not everyone, however, is welcoming the return of former activities with open arms. For some people, leaving their pandemic behaviors behind and resuming social situations seems like a daunting task. "There's been some very real fears that have been hanging over our heads for the last year," says Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think all of us can relate to some fear and apprehension."

The same feelings might crop up any time a family makes a transition together — whether or not a pandemic brought on the circumstances. Some of the strategies that ease other life changes could help adults and kids handle bringing back parts of their pre-COVID lives, too.

Out of Practice

When the pandemic began, the advice everywhere for people who felt unmoored by the drastic change in daily life was the same: Build a new routine. People followed that guidance as best they could, Gallagher says, and made new habits that created the daily structure they needed. Reincorporating some of the pre-pandemic activities means people are now disrupting the routines they have held for a year or longer, and letting go of some of the day-to-day stability that helped manage stress.  

Resuming old activities could be especially hard for people who might have had untreated or low levels of anxiety before the pandemic. Not everyone who experiences social anxiety or agoraphobia — the fear of places and situations that might cause panic — copes with those stresses to the same degree. It’s possible that before social distancing and stay-at-home measures kicked in, people who felt those anxieties kept them at lower levels because going about their lives required facing the triggering situations on a regular basis. 

Having patients face their fears, so to speak, and engage in the scenarios they find stressful is called exposure therapy. In a way, leading day-to-day life prior to the pandemic might have simulated a degree of exposure therapy for some people. “As an exposure therapist, usually we tell people the more you do, the easier things get,” Gallagher says. “We haven't had a lot of doing.” When impromptu conversations with colleagues or waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant faded away, anxieties about those interactions had a chance to grow stronger.

All these same struggles — feeling a disrupted routine, or lacking interaction that help keep anxiety in check — apply to kids, too. For the most part, kids are resilient in ways adults might not anticipate. "What we as adults might think may be difficult for them probably will be for some children and youths," says Brae Anne McArthur, a child psychologist at the University of Calgary in Canada. "And others, it will be like nothing ever happened." At the same time, pre-teens and young adults were already living through a period of life notorious for extra anxieties about identity and friendship. Suddenly, the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic was layered onto those emotions, all while depriving students of some of the reliable interactions they had with people their own age. 

While researchers like McArthur and her colleagues are still collecting data on how adolescents are coping with the transition back to some pre-pandemic activities, it’s likely there will be a mix of reactions. Some will jump back into hangouts or school sports with ease, while others could need more time to ease back into all their old interactions.

Take It Nice and Slow

If a slower return to activities is what someone needs, then so be it. Eagerness to return doesn’t mean there has to be a rush to take everything on at once. “Maybe signing kids up for all of the activities or sports or clubs or whatever they did prior to the pandemic might not make sense right away,” McArthur says. “Not that they can't get back to that point, but it might help them transition by just introducing a few things at a time.” Old activities might lack appeal simply because people’s interests can change too, McArthur adds.

If one pre-pandemic activity is resuming and means a drastic change to how you and your household have been living — a return to work or school, for example — try planning ahead and adjusting to the new schedule a couple weeks ahead of time. Students in particular might have gotten used to getting up later in the day if their schedule allowed it, so try and set the alarm earlier before in-person class starts to readjust sleep patterns, McArthur says. 

Knowing whether you or your kids need space and time to prepare for pre-pandemic activities will require honest communication. Maybe that’s an expected piece of advice, but not every household tries it. When parents try to hide stress and shield kids from reality, the tactic often fails, McArthur says. Instead, “families who have been quite open with their children and youth, obviously, at an appropriate developmental level, have children who are coping a lot better," she adds. 

Honest conversation can mean naming exactly what it is that might sound scary about the return to older habits. Being able to say what worries lie behind the apprehension allows you to make custom plans to address each specific concern. Having someone to listen to and validate your concerns is important, and as families make plans for how to address changes, bringing kids in on the decision-making process can ease the transition for everyone. 

If a lot of these tactics for smoothing the return to some of pre-pandemic life sound familiar, that’s because they are. All transitions that are expected parts of growing older can be hard, McArthur says, let alone unexpected ones like a global pandemic and quarantine measures. But any transition that stirs up complicated feelings can benefit from similar approaches, including finding assistance through the healthcare system. 

The descent into the pandemic and all the traumas it brought, like social isolation, loss of loved ones and financial instability, showed how unprepared some mental health services are for those who need them. And even if people feel like portions of their old lives are resuming, that doesn’t mean instant recovery from what the pandemic brought.

In Canada, McArthur says, the federal government has started to invest more funds into mental health care resources that were too sparse and too slow to meet what people need. And as some researchers and professionals argue, the public's transition back to some of pre-pandemic life will be easier if mental health services undergo an even larger transformation.

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