In mid-May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its masking recommendation, permitting people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to stop wearing masks in many public places. New York state adopted the recommendation a few days later, updating the statewide masking mandate that had gone into effect more than a year earlier.
While the update was welcomed by many, for others it added to confusion and uncertainty they already were experiencing.
After more than a year of keeping their distance from others, some people are experiencing anxiety at the thought of venturing out in public more frequently, explained Kristie Elias, vice president of behavioral health for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center.
Some of Catholic Family Center’s clients are among those who are anxious, she said, especially since Monroe County continues to report around 100 new cases of COVID-19 each day.
“I’m just hearing the concern about, is it safe to go back out in the community or not,” she remarked.
These people are not alone, according to NY Project Hope, a website and hotline created by the New York state Office of Mental Health to help people manage and deal with changes brought on by the pandemic.
“After over a year of being in a pandemic and adapting to new triple ‘R’s — rules, regulations and routines — it can be difficult transitioning back to normal,” notes the website’s section on stepping back into the community. “Normal can look different for everyone as COVID has changed many things in people’s lives. It is okay to feel uneasy and tense at times. You may even find yourself overthinking things you never used to think twice about.”
It’s important for people to give themselves permission to feel hesitant or anxious and to understand that these feelings are normal, Elias said. When clients express concerns about going back out into the community after months of pandemic-induced seclusion, she and her staff suggest taking a slow approach to re-entry.
“If you’re not comfortable, make your first couple of outings with a small group of people outside. Look at what the risk factors are and pick which ones you’re most concerned about and stay away from those. Start with the ones you’re most comfortable with,” she explained.
If someone is nervous about eating lunch at a crowded restaurant, for example, Elias suggests choosing a restaurant that offers outdoor seating and making plans to dine at an off-peak time.
“Instead of doing lunch at 1, do it at 2 or 3,” she explained.
After becoming comfortable with one activity or setting, she suggested moving on to something a little bit outside of the individual’s comfort zone, gradually building back up to pre-pandemic levels of engagement.
“There are some activities that you might just say feel too risky for you, and what’s the harm in not doing them?” she remarked. “If going to a sporting event causes you a lot of anxiety, what is the reason you need to go to that sporting event?”
The NY Project Hope website also advises talking about any fears or anxieties with friends and loved ones; inquiring about health and safety precautions in effect at any of the places you may be nervous about visiting; and choosing to continue some of the COVID-era rituals you’ve developed over the last year, even after resuming pre-pandemic activities.
Elias noted that some people suffering post-COVID anxiety may need to seek help if their anxiety is preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
“For people who refuse to leave the house to go grocery shopping, so they’re not eating, or if they’re not getting to medical appointments, it’s impacting the quality of their life,” she said.
People in such situations may want to mention their anxiety to their primary-care physicians, who can then make the appropriate referrals, Elias said. Residents of Monroe County have the option of dialing 211 to be connected with relevant resources, she added.
People experiencing debilitating anxiety often will display a sense of hopelessness or a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, Elias said.
“Maybe they used to like a specific show, and now they’re not even interested in that anymore. They’re not taking care of themselves. They’re not showering as frequently or eating as well as they used to. Those are all things to watch out for,” she cautioned.