Over the past few months our lives have been flipped upside down. We’ve adjusted to working from home, “meeting” up with friends via Zoom, at home workout routines, and making dozens of loaves of sourdough to stay entertained. We said goodbye to our normal routines and adjusted to a new lifestyle that was pretty bleak at times.
If you’d asked me two months ago how I felt about restrictions being loosened, I would have told you I couldn’t wait. However, the reality of reopening has proved complicated, confusing, and loaded with mixed emotions. Some of us are thrilled to return to our old social activities and favorite places in their new socially distant forms. Others of us are apprehensive about the public health risk of reopening. If you’re anything like me, your idea of what is safe might fluctuate constantly, and you may feel overwhelmed about what you should and shouldn’t be doing.
Unfortunately, as long as the virus is out there, there isn’t a definitive answer to what is and is not safe to do. Even public health experts demonstrate a range of comfort with various activities. This means that for the foreseeable future, we’ll all have to adjust to living in a world of uncertainty which can be stressful to say the least.
I turned to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist from Columbia University, for guidance on how we can cope with the emotional consequences of reopening. Here’s what she had to say.
Accept Your Anxiety
First, Dr. Hafeez recommends acknowledging that your feelings are normal. “These are unparalleled times, and we are faced with a lot of uncertainty. It’s completely okay to be anxious,” she says. “Countless people have experienced devastating losses, and those should not be minimized,” she reminds us.
Acknowledging the reality of the situation is a helpful reminder of the root of any anxiety you may be feeling, and this helps us contextualize the situation and rest assured that we are not overreacting or going crazy.
Control What You Can
Accepting our anxiety and acknowledging the root cause is a perfect first step that can allow us to shift into a problem solving mindset and take the necessary precautions to behave as safely as possible.
While you can wear a mask, practice vigilant hand washing, and avoid crowded environments, “accept that there won’t always be absolute certainty, and manage your emotional response to the fear of the unknown,” Dr. Hafeez advises.
“In therapy,” she explains, “this is something called exposure and response prevention (ERP). Exposure refers to confronting the thoughts, images, objects, and situations that make you anxious or fearful. Response prevention involves making a choice not to engage in compulsive behavior once the anxiety has been triggered. When we take a second to realize we aren’t in immediate danger, we can learn to tolerate the anxiety better,” she says.
ERP techniques are a valuable tool to manage any anxiety you may be experiencing and accept that beyond personal safeguards, there are certain things that you cannot control.
An additional strategy for managing anxiety is “by practicing mindfulness meditation for at least fifteen minutes a day,” Dr. Hafeez recommends. “Be mindful of how you consume and respond to the news. Engage in healthy routines and cut out things that could worsen your mental health,” she encourages.
Finally, she encourages people to “keep yourself distracted and active around the house to avoid triggers.” For example, “doing something, whether it be cleaning out your closet or going for a run, will help you work through your anxiety.” In contrast “sitting all day and thinking about your worries isn’t going to solve anything,” she warns.
These strategies will not eliminate the virus or ensure that you won’t get sick. However, when combined with taking safety precautions when outside of the home, they will help you through the day to day reality of living in an uncertain environment while maintaining your mental health and well being.