Anxiety about “return to normal” after pandemic

When David Dudovitz ventured out of his New York apartment to get his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, it was only the fourth time he had left his apartment since the pandemic began

Courtesy of David Dudovitz

When David Dudovitz ventured out to get his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine last week, it was only the fourth time he had left his New York apartment since the pandemic began, and he wasn’t going to take any chances. 

Before heading out, Dudovitz put on his N95 mask, his face shield, and cargo pants with multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in the pockets. When he got to the clinic, he waited outside until they called him in. Once inside, Dudovitz was so worried about catching the coronavirus from the other patients in the lobby that he went to the corner furthest from everyone, took out a plastic shopping bag and put it over his head as extra protection. 

“Several people thought I was crazy,” Dudovitz said. “I was just that terrified. It was just that strong of an anxiety … I just felt like I needed an extra layer.”

More than a year into the pandemic, people have become accustomed to the lives they’ve built and the routines they’ve created in isolation at home in their “Covid caves.” But as more Americans get vaccinated, case rates plunge, and President Biden setting a goal for Americans to be able to gather in small groups to celebrate the Fourth of July, the end of the pandemic appears to finally be drawing near.

Dudovitz is one of many Americans not looking forward to a “return to normal.” For some, this comes from an extreme fear of the disease. For others, it’s about the anxiety that comes with the idea of reacclimating into society. Others, meanwhile, have found that the pandemic has brought about positive changes in their lives, and they’re afraid of losing what they’ve gained. 

“This moment of working from home has really slowed people down. They’ve had a chance to work on things that are hard to work on,” said Nakia Hamlett, an expert on mental health and wellness at Connecticut College’s Department of Psychology. “It’s an opportunity to re-envision some of this and see what works for you and what maybe doesn’t anymore.”

The pandemic has already taken a mental toll on Americans. As of June 2020, nearly 41% of adults in the U.S. had reported they were struggling with mental health or substance use, with 31% reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression and 26% reporting trauma or a stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Marney White, a psychologist and public health professor at Yale School of Public Health, said that those anxious about re-entering society as more things start to open back up may want to try an anxiety reduction treatment known as “fading.” That is when a person very gradually introduces themselves to their phobic situation. In this case, people may want to ease out of their homes by first going on a walk, then doing an outdoor get-together with other vaccinated individuals, going somewhere indoors with a mask on, and so on, White said.

“They can continue to approximate normal by taking gradual steps,” White said. “Once you get used to a setting again then you can take the next step toward the next setting.”

‘I can see it being like a PTSD thing’

In San Francisco, teacher Sara Stiles has spent the majority of the pandemic indoors with her fiancé. The two found happiness with one another within the walls of their apartment and got engaged after quarantine began. 

Since then, the two have remained connected with friends and family through virtual hangouts and phone calls. Stiles said that they try to go outside for a walk every day, but since she’s so anxious about coming into contact with others, they typically wait until it’s dark and few people are out. Even then, if they are walking and see someone approaching on the sidewalk they’re on, Stiles and her partner will cross the street to avoid them. 

“I used to go into the park and wear a mask and stay away from people, but you can’t avoid them,” she said. “Someone will run up behind you and they were only two feet away and that wasn’t distanced, and that’s why I kind of gave up.”

Stiles said it’s not just her anxiety about Covid that has made her so careful. The two are lucky enough to work remotely, so they see it as their responsibility to remain vigilant. 

The couple have received their first dose of the vaccine, but as more of her colleagues start making plans for outdoor gatherings, Stiles said she is getting anxious about how and when it is safe and to start going to those type of events. 

“There’s the awkward conversation where someone invites you to do something, and then you’re like ‘Do I feel comfortable?’ and if I don’t, how do I explain it without sounding like I’m being way overly cautious or I just don’t want to see them,” Stiles said. 

Besides Covid, Stiles also has anxiety about driving, and as schools start to re-open, she said driving to work and being in a building with so many people will “be a weird adjustment.”

“Even when Covid is eradicated, I can see it being like a PTSD thing,” Stiles said. 

For Lise Feng of Los Gatos, California, the pandemic has been a solitary experience. She’s written about being single during the pandemic, and has only met up with friends and loved ones — outdoors and with masks on — a handful of times, including spending Chinese New Year on her mom’s patio. The only time she has ordered food was after she was gifted a Grubhub card that she didn’t want to go to waste. 

Although she misses happy hours with friends and the spontaneous encounters with the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, she’s in no rush to reintegrate. In fact, she wishes more people had locked down as seriously as she has. 

“If we were all trying to be safer when this whole thing started, we might be out of the lockdown already,” she said. 

But even with the end of the pandemic on the horizon, Feng is as quarantined now as ever and won’t be taking any chances.

“It’s not just to protect me but it’s the community too,” she said. 

Holding on to positive changes

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