Post Pandemic Anxiety? You’re Not Alone

post pandemic anxiety

Well, this is it folks. The vaccine is out and many of the restrictions that we have dealt with for the last 18 months are being lifted. Nearly half of the U.S. population has had at least their first dose of the vaccine and many people are eagerly awaiting a return to normalcy. However, the idea of going back to normal has left some people feeling on edge. There are a number of reasons why one might be anxious about going back to normal – social anxiety, returning to the dreaded morning commute, going back to in-person bullying at school, etc. If you’re one of the people who feel this way, you’re not alone. Before we dive into why people might be feeling anxious about the end of the pandemic, let’s go over what exactly “anxiety” is.

What is Anxiety?

     Anxiety is a word that gets thrown around very casually – “I’m feeling anxious about that history test;” “I’m so anxious about my date tonight;” – you get the idea. However, this type of “anxiety” is actually stress (yes, there is a difference). According to the American Psychological Association, while stress is caused by an external trigger, anxiety is “defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor.” Of course, although anxiety persists even without a stressor, stress can trigger anxiety episodes in those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). And, despite the differences between the two, both stress and anxiety have similar symptoms: insomnia, muscle tension, digestive troubles, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. In addition to these symptoms, people with an anxiety disorder may also find themselves ruminating when their anxiety is triggered.

 What is Rumination?

     According to Healthline, rumination is “the process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark…” Some people ruminate because they believe that constantly thinking about whatever problem is making them anxious will give them insight into a solution. Others get stuck ruminating about past emotional and/or physical traumas. Others ruminate because they are stressed out by something in their life that they can’t control (being unemployed for a year and a half long pandemic, for instance). Although rumination isn’t exactly fun, the idea that one could gain insight into a stressor/trauma can be enticing.

Why you Might be Feeling Anxious Right Now

     So, why exactly are people feeling anxious about “going back to normal” now that the pandemic is ending (low vaccination rate and variants notwithstanding)? Well, there are a number of reasons, all of which are related to the pandemic/lockdown. And, although each anxiety trigger is related to the pandemic, they are each worth discussing separately, as some people may have anxiety over one of these reasons but not the others.

 The Pandemic Itself Was Traumatic

     The first thing that we need to talk about is the fact that the pandemic itself was traumatic for a lot of people. According to Healthline, a study done in China last year found that over 10% of participants aged 14-35 were showing symptoms of PTSD – and this was just one month into the pandemic, mind you. And it is no real wonder that people have been traumatized by the pandemic. People have spent the last year and a half fearing for their safety, as well as the safety of their friends and family. COVID-19 has killed millions of people worldwide, which has no doubt been extremely traumatic to the loved ones that they left behind. But even for those who haven’t been sick and who haven’t had a loved one get sick, the pandemic has likely been traumatic.

     The pandemic forced billions of people around the world to put their lives on hold indefinitely, leaving them unsure of their safety, education, careers, love lives, etc. And, of course, the activities that people might usually engage in to de-stress (e.g., visiting family or going out to restaurants/beaches/theme parks/etc.) were suddenly unsafe. Front line workers, such as doctors, nurses, and grocery store workers, have been putting their health on the line to keep society functioning during the pandemic (often being met with anger and resentment for trying to enforce mask mandates on unruly customers/patients).

     Suffice to say, this has been a traumatic time for a lot of people. And getting over that trauma is going to be difficult for most. Even after we reach herd immunity (assuming that we do, which seems like a less safe assumption every day), it is going to take time for people to adjust.

 Feeling Unsafe Abandoning COVID Restrictions

     Speaking of taking time to adjust, one of the most difficult aspects of going back to normal, at least for some people, will be abandoning various COVID restrictions, such as wearing masks in public spaces. For those who took the pandemic seriously, it will be difficult to simply abandon masks, social distancing, using way too much hand sanitizer, and other health measures that they took to keep themselves safe. Even people who have been fully vaccinated will likely take time to adjust to getting back to business as usual.

 Returning to Work/School/Socializing

     For some, the very idea of going back to “business as usual” is causing anxiety, especially for those with pre-existing social anxiety. As the name implies, social anxiety is a form of anxiety that centers specifically around social situations. While the Healthline article mentioned above argued that the pandemic likely hadn’t caused new cases of social anxiety, it likely exacerbated existing social anxiety. As a result, people with pre-existing social anxiety may find that they have more trouble re-acclimating to pre-pandemic social conventions.

     In addition to social anxiety, insomnia has been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Both pre-existing and new cases of insomnia, in addition to the obvious effects of not getting enough sleep, were linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, according to a report released by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM). This ends up creating something of a feedback loop, where insomnia worsens other mental health conditions, which often make it more difficult to sleep.

      Of course, pre-existing mental health conditions aren’t the only reasons that people are stressed about going back to normal. An article posted by Massachusetts General Hospital described one useful thing that COVID-19 did for some people was give them the gift of time. The article claims that, for some people, the pandemic created a slower paced, more flexible lifestyle that allowed them to focus on themselves, their families, and their goals for the future in a way that they didn’t have the time or energy to focus on before. Returning to the often fast-paced and demanding lifestyle that many people (especially working class people) faced prior to the pandemic will be difficult for many, and may even feel soul-crushing for those who went from working 40+ hours per week to being able to stay at home with their families for the last year and a half.

 The American Economy

     Of course, there is one other reason that people (even those without an anxiety disorder or pandemic-induced PTSD) might be anxious about going back to normal, and that reason is that the old “normal” wasn’t all that great for the majority of people. To give an idea of why “going back to normal” might be so anxiety-inducing to some, just look at this report published by the Federal Reserve back in 2018, which found that nearly half of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 for an emergency expense (e.g., medical bills, car repairs, a traffic ticket, etc.). Around the same time, nearly half a million Americans experienced homelessness on any given night. The United States is the richest country on Earth, and yet is home to a massive amount of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. And the worst part? The people living paycheck-to-paycheck are the lucky ones compared to those living without a paycheck.

     As mentioned in the previous section, locking down during the pandemic was actually something of a gift to many people. People who had, prior to the pandemic, spent their most of their days working too hard for too little because it was the only way to avoid homelessness. The pandemic forced many businesses to change their practices in order to remain open during lockdown, including switching many office jobs from office work to remote work. But even for people that found themselves out of a job entirely, the expansion of unemployment benefits gave them a chance to relax, refresh, and reevaluate. Many realized that they hated the way that they had been forced to live previously, and subsequently found themselves dreading the day that life went back to “normal.”

What Can You Do About Anxiety?

     So, what can you do to ease your anxiety as we continue to move past the pandemic and the many restrictions/lifestyle changes that went with it? Well, that really depends on the reason for your anxiety. This section will be broken up into two parts, the first being about tips for improving your personal situation to ease the symptoms of/avoid triggering pandemic anxiety, social anxiety, etc. The second part will be some thoughts on how we can change aspects of our society going forward so that people don’t have to hate the very thought of getting up and going to work/school/etc. every day.

 Tips for Your Personal Life

     An article from Verywell Mind recommends that those suffering from post-pandemic anxiety reenter social situations very gradually, in order to reacclimate without overstimulating. Some ideas for this strategy include: leaving the house every day (or, at least most days), even if only for a walk; doing the grocery shopping for your household; walk around a crowded outdoor setting (such as the mall or a park) to get used to being around large groups, even if you don’t speak to anyone; and socializing from home as often as you can (phone/video calls, online gaming, etc.).

     The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) suggests: practicing yoga and/or meditation; getting a massage; eating well balanced meals/not skipping meals; limiting alcohol and caffeine intake; getting enough sleep; exercising; laughing (watch more comedies and less serious/dramatic shows and movies); and therapy.

 Improving Society

    While each of the techniques/tips mentioned above can help ease anxiety symptoms, they won’t do much for the source of anxiety that stems from work/the economy. This kind of anxiety can only really be managed, at least for now, but there are things that you can do to begin fixing some of the problems with our economy and the role of work in our lives. So, for starters, healthcare/housing shouldn’t be tied to employment. The fact that many workers will lose their healthcare coverage and, if they don’t have much/any savings, their home if they lose their job contributes massively to the sense of burnout that many workers feel. If we want to live in a happy, productive society then we need to create a society that takes care of its people.

     Since there isn’t anything that the individuals reading this can do (unless a politician happens to stumble across this) to change things overnight, we do have the power of both our votes and our wallets. You can use the power of your vote by only voting for politicians that run on platforms that include things like Medicare for All, laws protecting workers and their right to unionize, and laws that would provide more vacation time/sick leave/family leave/etc. to workers. Unless you’re a billionaire, you will likely benefit yourself from policies like these, but you’ll also benefit from living in a society where people don’t experience anxiety over just about every aspect of their daily lives.

     Likewise, you can use the power of your wallet to boycott companies that don’t treat their workers fairly (*cough* Amazon *cough*) and choosing instead to support small businesses and American workers. This will have the added benefit of incentivizing companies to treat their workers, both here and abroad, better by increasing pay and providing more benefits. Remember not to bankrupt yourself though – if you are one of the millions of Americans that doesn’t have much/any savings, you shouldn’t feel bad about “supporting” companies like Amazon or Walmart. Just do what you can without putting yourself in financial jeopardy.

In Conclusion

 The pandemic itself caused people a lot of anxiety, but the idea of going back to normal is anxiety-inducing as well. Take steps to identify and, if possible, eliminate the stressors that are causing you anxiety. Consider getting therapy if you are unable to get a handle on your anxiety. There is no shame in asking for help, especially when it comes to medical issues (which absolutely includes mental health). Lifestyle changes like eating healthier, meditating, exercising, etc. can help, but don’t forget about the systemic problems that contribute to each of our struggles with anxiety. Vote for politicians that are actually offering solutions, rather than simply voting along party lines. Try not to support companies that exploit their workers (whether those workers live here or in another country), but don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a horrific toll on the world, but it gave some of us the chance to take a step back and reflect on the values of our society. The pandemic has given us a chance to make some changes to the way that we live our lives, so let’s take it.

Clayton Davis - July 13, 2021