DENVER (KDVR) – The COVID-19 pandemic has been impacting our lives for nearly two years — from lockdowns to quarantines and isolation to missing out on normal in-person events. While the pandemic might not be over, many people are trying to transition back into their so-called “normal way of life.”
As you start attending more events and doing more things in person, it could leave you feeling anxious.
Dr. Justin Ross, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of workplace well-being at UCHealth, said feeling post-pandemic social anxiety is normal.
“Anxiety has been a cornerstone mental health experience through COVID and through the pandemic in general. It has ebbed and flowed with the various variants we’ve experienced, and omicron is no different,” Ross said. “On the mental health side, we’re seeing a high level of anxiety, especially COVID anxiety as omicron continues to be in such high numbers.”
As the uncertainty of the pandemic grows, Ross said, it’s important to understand that anxiety can grow with uncertainty.
“We don’t have the ability to reasonably know or predict or have clarity about what’s coming, and that’s going to be really the first building block for anxiety,” Ross said.
Not having immediate control in the social sense right now can also be a cause of social anxiety.
“We don’t have that immediate control about making sure that we’re going to be safe and healthy,” he said.
Ross told KDVR that people are experiencing what could be described as “a conflict in values,” especially in a social sense.
“On the one hand, they want to continue to remain safe and healthy and that’s been true of course throughout the pandemic. But on the other hand, there’s this strong desire to regain a sense of normalcy, and there’s this renewed sense of wanting to get together and go to restaurants and go to places and do the social thing, so those two values are often in conflict.”
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The conflict between being social and the desire to maintain health and safety is normal right now.
“It starts with the sense of being overwhelmed and feeling a sense that your safety may be being threatened,” Ross said. “A lot of us have had to hunker down for the past few years and this novelty of getting together and being in big groups again can feel very overwhelming very quickly.”
Coping with social anxiety
Normalizing social anxiety and recognizing that it’s a completely normal part of your experiences is step one in coping with it.
“The first thing we need to do is we need to bring some normalcy to recognizing that the experience is really common and a human experience that occurs because of those variables, because of not having predictability, not having control, and having things that you care about feel as though they’re being threatened in some way, shape, or form,” he said.
The second step, according to Ross, is recognizing that we have the power to impact our anxiety responses, through breathing and through the way we think.
“Stopping, taking slow deep rhythmic breaths for just a minute, can really help reduce that sense of anxiety in the mind and in the body,” Ross said. “This is an idea that’s old as dirt, that we’ve heard and we’ve said throughout our lives: just take a breath when we’re upset. Sometimes we get anxious when we feel pressured to do something. We feel as though we have to do this and we don’t have an outlet.”
Ross said if you’re starting to feel that anxiety, you should reconnect to your values and to your priorities and think about what’s most important in that situation.
When is it time to seek professional help?
In general, Ross said there’s going to be a lot of re-emerging anxiety that people experience as they get back to “searching every inch of the world.”
If the anxiety persists, there is a point when you should seek professional help.
“If it’s getting to a point where it’s debilitating, it’s impacting your ability to live your life authentically the way that you would like, and it’s doing that repeatedly. … It’s impacting you for multiple days, multiple different events, those are probably signs that this anxiety is growing to a point that it could benefit from some professional,” Ross said.
“Give yourself permission to recognize what you’re feeling is normal and recognize that’s information for you to analyze,” he said. “You can examine the values, conflicts that you’re experiencing, and that can really help you dial in [and have] that response in mind and body to navigate that situation appropriately.”
Last month, White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed the importance of mental health amid the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the pandemic has had “a major effect on our lives.”
“Many of us are facing challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” the CDC stated.
The CDC said stress can cause feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry and frustration, among other things. It can also result in difficulty sleeping or concentrating as well as physical reactions such as headaches and other body pain.
The CDC suggests taking care of your body, making time to unwind and safely connecting with others.