Masked woman on bus

Managing Anxiety About Life After COVID-19

Private: Natalie Dattilo, PhD
Contributor Natalie Dattilo, PhD

More than half of the U.S. population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine — one of the most hopeful signs that we may be approaching the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Life had been put on hold for many. There’s been economic turmoil and so much loss. Surely, once the masks are off and life returns to some version of normal, all will be fine?

Not so fast, says Brigham and Women’s Hospital psychologist Natalie Dattilo, PhD. It doesn’t surprise her that some of her patients are expressing unease about resuming their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’ve all wanted to go back to normal for so long, but there are a lot of mixed feelings,” she said. “We’re creatures of habit. We get used to things being a certain way and any time there’s a shift, there’s some potential for anxiety or hesitancy. It’s totally normal.”

How can I cope with fears about returning to pre-COVID norms?

In her practice, Dattilo hears people express a lot of qualms about going to the doctor, traveling on public transportation and being in other enclosed spaces like elevators. And while many of us have stayed in touch with intimates online or through physically distanced get-togethers, more casual interactions have fallen by the wayside. As we return to more in-person interactions, they may feel awkward at first, she adds.

People with preexisting mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, may find the return to business-as-almost-usual to be especially fraught, according to Datillo. Yet at the same time, some may be better positioned to deal with the stress of reentry.

“If you’ve been working on these conditions in therapy, you’re equipped with the coping skills to deal with them,” she explained. “It’s just a matter of applying them to a novel situation.”

7 tips to help you transition back to pre-pandemic life

The advice Dr. Dattilo offers has its roots in some of the tools and approaches she uses in her clinical practice. Here are some of her tips:

  1. Make several lists to organize your thoughts. Lists might include things you will no longer have to do once it’s safe. Some examples are wearing a mask indoors and sanitizing surfaces. Think about favorite activities you used to do and want to resume. Rank those activities from easiest to hardest.
  2. When it’s safe, resume your old activities and check them off as you accomplish them. It might feel most comfortable to make this a gradual process, beginning with those things that are easiest.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Expect it to feel a little strange at first and rest assured that others are struggling, too. Instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” reframe the judgment as “I wish this were easier, but for now it’s a struggle and I’m going to work on this every day until it gets better.”
  4. Don’t be surprised if emotional recovery is a little like a roller coaster. We’ve all suffered losses of some type this year. The feelings of grief may hit in waves and at times seem to come out of nowhere. Some people have suffered the death of a loved one and were unable to process the loss because of the absence of rituals like funerals. They may finally have the emotional space to fully grieve.
  5. Acknowledge that people will have different levels of comfort with reintegration. Your friends and loved ones may take longer to acclimate than you, or vice versa. Practice compassion and understanding. We’ve experienced a collective trauma and people recover at different rates.  
  6. Hold on to the pandemic-induced changes that serve you. For those people who have cultivated a new skill or perhaps reconnected with friends on Zoom, keep it going. For example, if you’ve been learning floral design online, consider signing up for an in-person class.
  7. If you’re really struggling, talk to a mental health provider. They can help you process the fear and anxiety and devise coping strategies.

Private: Natalie Dattilo, PhD
Natalie Dattilo, PhD

Natalie Dattilo, PhD, is director of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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Get additional tips on keeping your family healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more COVID-19 articles.