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As the ‘new normal’ begins to emerge, it’s OK to feel anxious about the future

By May 27, 2021No Comments

It will come as no surprise that anxiety, depression, stress, and other emotional issues have soared since the start of the pandemic.

Unemployment or income loss, changes in working conditions, home confinement, school closures, restrictions on basic freedoms. It’s all led to a profound focus on mental health.

One would think that ease in restrictions, lower infection rates, and the abundance of vaccines would lessen the strain on our mental health. But experts have noticed an emerging phenomenon — anxiety about life after coronavirus. While we’re desperate for some sort of normality to resume, lots of us are still anxious about the future.

Although we miss friends and family, the thought of doing everyday activities makes many of us nervous. We worry about businesses struggling without adequate support, about the instability of work, how far our children may have fallen behind academically, and even whether the virus will return, perhaps in a more virulent form. In short, normal may not feel so “normal” anymore.

Basically, we are unsure of exactly what that life will be like. Without a clear future anchor and the ability to create a longer-term plan, we lack the ability to prepare, and the constantly changing rules lower our tolerance to uncertainty.

“We’re in a bridge between two worlds and we’re still very much in a pandemic world,” said Dr. Elissa Epel, vice chair of the UCSF psychiatry department.  “We have created cocoons for ourselves, and like them or not, they have been a safe place and now we have to leave them for this busier world.”

Epel suggests a gradual approach because change of any kind creates stress. It is important to preserve the leisure time we learned to covet during the pandemic, even as life picks up speed.

For some, being solitary may now feel more satisfying than being social. Therapists also report anxiety among people who dread the thought of commuting and spending hours in the workplace with others.

“It will be very stressful to go back all at once, we’re more sensitive now,” said Epel. “We haven’t been around groups of people all day and having that level of stimulation.”

Experts say it’s also natural to feel lingering uneasiness, after a year of worry and caution.

Many people are starting small, with private get-togethers or maybe a movie. When considering a sporting event, concert or flight, experts say be patient with yourself or others because change- even positive change- is stressful.

“The word normal is almost a joke because we are all changed, we live in a different world now,” said Epel, “and we are entering this new phase with a lot of fatigue and grief and loss.”

Some people may be surprised to experience lingering sadness, even amid the happiness of re-openings.

“This is a tender moment, this is complex,” reassures Epel.

In the end, aim for a balance, a blend of your old life and the new. Pick and choose who to socialize with and which events to attend. But don’t rush things. Embrace the idea that it takes time — and patience with yourself.