Reducing COVID-19 reopening anxiety: 5 tips from an EHN doctor

To help control the spread of COVID-19, people around the world have been asked to limit their social contacts, stay at home, and keep their distance from others for the better part of the past two years. While many of us are pining for our former social lives, and feeling hopeful as restrictions ease, its completely normal to experience a bit of so-called reopening anxiety.

In fact, a Léger poll found in May that 52 per cent of Canadians are anxious about going back to how things were before the pandemic, and over a quarter of respondents said they thought their provincial restrictions were easing too quickly.

While Canada’s high vaccination rates and plummeting case counts are a cause for optimism, the pandemic has already had significant mental health impacts. As the world reopens it’s important to check in with your mental health as you adapt to a “new normal.”

MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION

When COVID-19 was at its peak in Canada, quarantine, self isolation and social distancing were central to the country’s public health strategy to contain the virus. 

As EHN Patient Care Specialist Carlee Campbell points out, this made spending tons of time alone much more socially acceptable. However, our brains can easily get much too comfortable with solitude.

For those of us with mental health and/or substance use disorders, the pandemic actually provided us with the perfect excuse to revert to a comfortable old haunt called isolation,” she said.  “Unfortunately, continued isolation actually reinforces the idea that we cannot handle whatever social situation is presenting itself, often even those that used to be the norm in our day-to-day.”

While the idea of seeing people in person might feel overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, being around and connecting with others is important for mental wellbeing; prolonged isolation can negatively impact our physical and emotional health.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY

We all experience a certain degree of anxiety in our daily lives. Fear and anxiety are biological responses that warn us of danger and keep us safe, but too much can be mentally and physically exhausting.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a general anxiety disorder can be diagnosed when anxiety and worry are associated with three or more of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not for the past six months).

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)

If anxiety is getting in the way of your life, you may want to talk to our team about treatment options.  In the meantime, try the Canadian Association for Mental Health’s Perceived Stress Scale survey here.

HOW TO COPE WITH ANXIETY

Throughout the past two years, we’ve been told repeatedly that if we were to return to our pre-pandemic levels of socializing, we’d put ourselves or others at risk. After a while, our brains adjusted to the fact that we were largely staying inside and away from others out of fear.

According to Dr. Speranza Dolgetta, Medical Director at Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON,, the brain loves routine and predictability – whether it is actually comfortable or not. “The more we behave or think in a certain way, the more the brain will try to take us there automatically.”

So, heading back out into society after two years at home is a huge departure from what we, and our minds, are used to. Anxiety and trepidation is a completely natural response.

The good news, she adds,  is that just like the brain learned to be afraid in 2020, it can also  learn to be brave.

Here are some tips from Dr. Dolgetta  on how to overcome reopening anxiety:

  • Gently accept where your mind is now and try to not judge yourself harshly for it. In fact, try not to judge anyone at all. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. You are not alone in this and fighting yourself is not going to get you to the mall any quicker. Remember that this is a process and just as it took some time to develop true fear and anxiety about the pandemic, so, too, it will take time to lose fear and gain courage. 
  • Only try to control those things that are possible for you to control. There are a lot of different rules from country to country, province to province and indeed from city to city. It’s confusing and it doesn’t help the anxiety. What you can control as the restrictions ease is your own behaviour. If it feels better to continue wearing a mask and distancing at first, then that’s what you should do. There is no prize for being the first to buy a new pair of shoes in person. Inform your friends that you will be wearing a mask and would like to stay outside. This will help you avoid any uncomfortable situations that you are not quite ready to deal with.
  • Start small and go slow. Maybe your first outing will be an early morning grocery shop when you know the store won’t be busy. Practice this for a while. Allow our brain to learn that it is not a threat – allow this to become the new comfort zone of the brain. When that is comfortable, move on to the next challenge and repeat. 
  • Talk about it. Tell someone you trust how you’re feeling. Ask them to come with you. Don’t be ashamed. 
  • Seek help from a professional if you find that you are still struggling and not making progress, seek out help from a professional. Your family doctor is always an excellent place to start. Reach out to a therapist who can guide you through the process and help you work through your anxiety. 

As well, Carlee adds, the only way out is through: “Put clinically,” she said, “one highly effective way to deal with social anxiety is using the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tool of Exposure Therapy.” Make sure these therapies are conducted by an accredited healthcare professional.

“In its most basic conception, this technique involves gradually exposing yourself to increasingly scary situations and staying until the fear subsides. This is identical to learning in recovery that our feelings are survivable and will not kill us”.  

If you’re struggling with anxiety, you don’t have to do it alone. Edgewood Health Network has a variety of accredited, evidence-based treatment programs that can help.

CALL EHN

Whether you’re an individual who needs help with your mental health or substance use disorder, or you’re an employer who has employees who need help—we’re here for you. Call us 24/7 at one of the numbers below to start a conversation about how we can help you.

  • Bellwood (Toronto, ON): 416-495-0926 
  • Edgewood (Vancouver Island, BC): 250-751-0111
  • Ledgehill (Lawrencetown, NS): 800-676-3393
  • Sandstone (Calgary, AB): 587-350-6818
  • Gateway (Peterborough, Ontario): 705-874-2000
  • Nouveau Depart (Montreal, Quebec): 888-488-2611
  • Outpatient Services (Multiple locations): 888-767-3711

ONLINE TREATMENT AND SUPPORT

If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-866-926-0424 or visit ehnonline.ca.