COVID Support VT Counselor Shares Expert Tips For Re-Entry

With an end in sight to the restrictions of the Covid pandemic, the re-entry back into “normalcy” has been a surprising source of worry for many. A survey conducted in February by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of Americans feel anxious about resuming in-person contact, regardless of their vaccination status. 

Editor’s Note: Alex Karambelas, a Support Counselor with COVID Support VT, answers the “warmline” (2-1-1, #2) and helps people find support and resources. She is facilitating a new, free workshop on Coping with Covid Re-Entry May 3.

Two Main Forms of Anxiety Around Re-Entry 

Experts say that there are two main categories of anxiety related to Covid re-entry: those who are worried about contracting the virus, and those who fear they have lost social skills during isolation or fear the re-emergence of social interactions. 

Mild forms of anxiety resulting from the unprecedented experience of living through a pandemic are normal and to be expected. However, if these feelings disrupt our relationships or our ability to function in daily life, it may be the sign of a deeper challenge or disorder. It’s important to consider what our emotions may be communicating to us, and what we can do to support ourselves through this process.

How Anxiety Affects Us

Not all anxiety is bad. As a fear-based response, anxiety is necessary to our survival as a species. Most of us have felt some level of fear and anxiety related to Covid. In its best form, it allows us to protect ourselves. Without it, we may not have the same commitment to wearing masks, social distancing, and following other protocols to keep ourselves and others safe.

However, prolonged experiences of anxiety and panic can have detrimental consequences to our health. When we perceive danger or uncertainty, our bodies produce stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This physiological response can inhibit functions that aren’t deemed necessary by our body for short-term survival, including sleep and digestion. It can also help us escape a dangerous situation, such as by increasing our heart rate or providing more energy to our muscles in the form of glucose. These responses prepare us for the well-known “flight or fight” mode by making our senses more acute and our reflexes faster. 

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

While this may benefit us within situations of actual physical danger, prolonged experiences of anxiety can take a long-term toll on our mental and physical health. Some of these negative effects include suppressing memory and attention, weakening our immune systems, decreasing our threshold to cope with low-level stressors, and disrupting our ability to access our prefrontal cortex, the “rational thinking” part of our brain.

Because these unintended consequences of anxiety can be so detrimental, it is important to recognize when fear is and isn’t serving us. Breaking this cycle can begin with “checking in” on our feelings, and naming our panic, fear and anxiety as we start to feel it. When we identify these emotions, we are better able to assess if our emotional reactions are warranted or helpful. 

COVID re-entry, man looking up stairs to climb
Re-entry anxiety is real. Find ways to cope with it at our free workshop May 3: Coping with Covid Re-entry.

Nine Tips for Easing Re-entry

Start Gradually

Take it one day at a time, and incorporate any changes slowly and gradually. Going from isolation back into socialization is not something that should happen overnight, and by taking small steps you can minimize the shock of readjustment. Stick to a routine, and create a plan for you to slowly incorporate safe daily practices to help with re-entry. A good rule of thumb is to pick a low-contact activity or setting that has been cleared by the CDC, such as going on a socially distanced walk with a friend or family member, or sitting outside together in a park or backyard.

Foster optimism  

Reflect on the activities, people, and values that reaffirm your reason for living. What are you most excited to experience again? Perhaps you have missed spending time with family or loved ones, playing a sport, going to restaurants, or experiencing live music. Getting in touch with the things that make you happy will minimize the overarching stress and give you something to look forward to. Although they may not be immediately available, having this goal can motivate you through a period of unease. 

Similarly, identify the potential positive outcomes of your fears. As much as you perhaps fear seeing people for the first time in so long and not knowing what to say or do, imagine how good it will feel to have that first laugh or meaningful conversation. Meditate on your greatest hopes for rekindling these friendships as a way to move past your lurking fears. Chances are, they feel the same way and your optimism will disarm their worries too.

Develop self-care or a mindfulness practice

Studies show that having a daily mindfulness practice, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, gentle stretching, or taking a walk, to name a few, can greatly minimize stress. Even by taking 15 minutes a day to slow down, you can bring your body and mind into a state that will allow you to relax and better rationally assess a stressful situation when it comes about. Broader forms of self-care can also be incredibly useful. Cooking a new recipe, watching a favorite show, taking a bath, reading a book, and listening to music are examples of daily ways to treat yourself with kindness. Make a plan to do something nice for yourself once a day, even for a small period of time.

Don’t completely avoid or push off re-entry

The longer you wait to begin the re-entry process, the more intimidating and threatening the world around you will become. In order to make the overall process less fearful and daunting, you can start taking tiny steps now. A tool called Exposure Therapy, defined as “safely confronting sources of fear,” which is a well-used technique for many anxiety-related disorders, could also be helpful in COVID re-entry. This tactic encourages you to face your fears in small and controlled forms. As an example, if COVID has caused you to fear large crowds of people, try starting with just seeing one person in a safe and socially distanced manner. By sticking to CDC guidelines, you can create a re-entry plan for yourself with confidence. 

Educate yourself on the facts

One of the most anxiety-inducing factors of the COVID pandemic is the lack of control we have over the collective situation. We can’t control the people around us, and their compliance to safe guidelines. But within these limitations there are many things we can control. Staying up-to-date on the most recent guidelines and information will allow you to know with more certainty the ways you can minimize your risk, and what kinds of activities are safe. 

Set Boundaries

It is daunting enough to consider re-entry with individuals who you know and trust to follow COVID-safe protocol. But when we factor in the people in our lives who perhaps don’t agree with information regarding vaccines, mask-wearing, and social-distancing, we can feel an immense amount of (warranted) stress. 

If you know someone who isn’t taking the pandemic seriously, put down a set of limitations. You can communicate the expectations you have for them to see you such as wearing a mask or being outside, and limit the types of activities you do together such as choosing not to socialize in public. Consider seeing them within your own space where you will be able to have more control and autonomy over the situation, and can better ask them to respect your wishes. If they are resistant to your boundaries, communicate that you will be opting out of seeing them in person, and try resorting to phone or zoom chats with those individuals. 

Limit social media

There is a difference between staying informed and being over-exposed to conflict. We live in a society where some of us are always “plugged in”, be it through our social media apps or 24-hour TV news coverage. While knowing what is happening in the world around us is important, a consistent stream of negative news and information can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Try to limit your intake of media to a short amount of time a day, or receive your news weekly through a credible source. 

Know your rights

If your occupation is not following COVID-safe guidelines, making you feel unsafe or putting you at undue risk, it is worth exploring what kind of recourse you may have. There is a huge difference between feeling generally anxious about the uncertainty of the time we live in, and being rightfully anxious because of an unsafe environment. You can get more information on what guidelines employers are mandated to follow by contacting the State Department of Labor, community action agencies, or legal aid services local to you. 

Seek help

If your anxiety is causing disruptions with work, your relationships, impeding your ability to eat, sleep, or concentrate, or increasing your substance use, seek help. Also seek support if your anxiety is causing physical reactions such as a faster heart rate, headaches, dizziness, or worsening of existing health problems. Being in a constant state of worry, fearing hypothetical situations, consistently scanning your environment for possible threats, and feeling intense reactions to loud noise or a busy environment are other signs to watch for. If you recognize these behaviors in yourself, call your primary care provider or explore online mental health support options. There are more avenues for telemedicine appointments than ever before, which can make finding support easier.

It is worth noting that certain groups may be predisposed to have a more difficult time coping with re-entry. This includes people with pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, and those who have suffered the loss of friends and family due to the pandemic. Other groups include people who have experienced severe financial distress or employment disruption, as well as essential workers and first responders who may have been unduly impacted by burnout and compassion fatigue. Certain communities who have collectively been affected by the pandemic in disproportionate ways, including BIPOC and New Americans, are also at a higher risk for re-entry anxiety. If you identify as are an at-risk individual, seeking help from a physician will allow you to create a medically sound plan with an expert regarding the specifics of your life and personal situation.

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Need to talk?

Call 2-1-1 (option #2) or 866-652-4636 (option #2) for free, confidential, one-on-one counseling. Our Support Counselors are available Monday – Friday. 

In crisis?

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825;  text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health agency for 24/7 support.

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Learn about upcoming Wellness Workshops from COVID Support VT, and Town Halls we’re hosting in partnership with community organizations.

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COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Departments of Emergency Management and Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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