Health

Anxiety and Anticipation: Rejoining a Post-COVID World

When the True Talking Toastmasters moved to making speeches on Zoom at the pandemic’s start, the group’s savvy members — residents of Silicon Valley — aced the technology. But they missed the human touch.

Some members felt remote meetings slowed their progress in polishing public speaking skills, club president Bhavesh Shah says. “The feel of the audience, when they’re sitting right in front of you in person, is very different than the online audience, some of whom might be distracted. The level of engagement was not the same.”

The group, based in San Jose, CA, also missed fun outings, like their picnics and winery tours.

When will the club meet in person again? When public health guidance says it’s safe, Shah says. But he sees a gradual shift to a post-pandemic world, perhaps with hybrid meetings that allow in-person or remote attendance. Members can choose, depending on their comfort levels.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines and CDC guidelines are letting us return to a more normal lifestyle, the prospect has triggered many emotions in Americans, from yearning and exhilaration to dread and panic. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, a return to “normal” prompts strong feelings.

“Some people are extremely excited and looking forward to it, and other people are downright terrified of having to go back to the public at large,” says Jonathan Kanter, PhD, a psychologist who directs the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington.

In fact, a March 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association found that about half of respondents said they felt uneasy about returning to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.

A Return to Public Life

Not Tam Le. “I would love to get back to in-person meeting,” says Le, a vice president with True Talking Toastmasters. “I can’t wait until I can actually do so.” She recruited a friend to join the group, but “he told me only when the club goes to in-person will he come back.” English isn’t his first language, she says, so he’s more comfortable communicating in person.

Shah says he welcomes in-person meetings as long as people take proper precautions, but adds, “I have mixed feelings.” As a tech professional, he believes that virtual communication will become a permanent part of our lives. “Business itself in general is now going to be in a hybrid mode,” he says. “You will be using the technology to interact with other people that you need to interact with, be it your customers, co-workers, or stakeholders.”

He favors perhaps a monthly, remote-only Toastmasters meeting “just to keep our virtual presentation skills sharp,” he says. “It is a necessary skill that comes in handy from time to time, not just when the next pandemic starts.”


Paige Skinner, a 30-year-old freelance journalist, has weathered the entire pandemic at her parents’ home in the Dallas area. “I don’t want the pandemic to last any longer. I know people are suffering. Half a million Americans are dead,” she says.

But sheltering in the family home has been a welcome pause during an uncertain time, especially since her work has slowed down. “One of the reasons I’m selfishly hesitant for the pandemic to end is because I have to figure out my life once it does,” she says. “I’m super-privileged, and I’m aware of that.”

Skinner has left the house to shop for groceries and get takeout food but hasn’t dated or socialized to protect herself and her parents, who are in their late 60s. In October, she did dine outdoors at a restaurant with friends, but she didn’t feel relaxed. “It was really stressful, even being outside,” she says.

Skinner still doesn’t know what her post-pandemic future holds. But when she starts dating again, she’ll size up potential partners differently, she says.

“I’ve stayed inside for pretty much an entire year. I don’t want to date anyone who didn’t take this pandemic seriously, who put anyone at risk or inadvertently put my parents at risk. That just boils down to selfishness, and obviously, I don’t want to date a selfish person. That’s definitely going to be a difficult thing to navigate once I do start dating again.”

Others have taken to social media to air their post-pandemic fears. Maxwell Porter tweeted, “Have we come up with a word for being afraid of life after the pandemic?” Twitter user A Bee wrote, “After the pandemic is over with and we can go out without masks, I will be terribly afraid of getting sick for probably the rest of my life.”

Transition Phase

We’re still transitioning to a post-pandemic world, but Le should have no trouble re-entering public life. As a real estate agent, she showed homes during the pandemic. Others might take a middle-of-the-road approach, happily keeping some of the pandemic year’s changes in their lives. For example, many introverts might choose to maintain a slower, quieter lifestyle.

But what about the many uneasy folks among us — those who don’t want to isolate forever but feel nervous about seeing others again? “The fact that the disease was literally socially transmitted, it resulted in us being scared of contact with other people,” Kanter says. “And then the mandates to isolate and limit social contact further created this sense of social threat.” Those with a history of anxiety or social anxiety might feel even more frightened.

It’s too soon to know whether the pandemic will create lasting changes to our social interactions, but experts emphasize that connection has always been crucial to our species.

“Our need to be part of a social group, this is built into being human,” Kanter says. “I think if anything, among the many lessons of the pandemic, it’s really made it clear to people how important our relationships are.”

For teenagers with social anxiety, interacting with peers creates fears of being embarrassed or rejected. While anxious teens seem primed to be “introverted and self-contained,” says W. Keith Sutton, PsyD, director of the Bay Area Center for Anxiety, “there are also a lot of folks who feel lonely.”


He’s seen teens in the San Francisco Bay Area yearning for the physical company of peers, “even though it was a source of distress,” he says. “Oftentimes, there’s a great wish to be social and connected, and also at the same time being terrified of it.”

Being connected brings health benefits, Kanter says.

“We know that people who are lonely and socially isolated are more likely to die younger,” he says. “We know that when you’re lonely or socially disconnected, your immune functioning is disrupted, your cardiovascular functioning is disrupted. Your mental health is affected, of course. Loneliness is probably the strongest predictor of depression among all of the many predictors of depression.”

As people engage again, experts aren’t advocating for reckless behavior that runs counter to CDC advice, especially with the country’s lack of herd immunity. But the agency has provided new guidelines that nudge us toward normal life again.

For example, it states that in general, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors, unless they’re in crowded places, such as stadiums and concerts. Given the low risk of outdoor transmission, even unvaccinated people can go maskless if they’re walking or exercising outdoors with their own household.

But they still need to wear masks while dining outdoors with friends from multiple households, while those of us who are fully vaccinated no longer need to.

It’s Not Unusual to Be Nervous

It’s normal for people to feel anxious about adapting to more changes, including meeting in person again, says Bethany Teachman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and director of its Program for Anxiety, Cognition and Treatment Lab. “There’s a tendency to take a situation that’s ambiguous or uncertain and assign a really threatening, negative meaning to it,” she says.

“You should go into things expecting that things will feel strange for a while. That’s a very natural reaction in light of what’s been going on, and it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you if you’re feeling some anxiety or stress at doing things you haven’t done for a very long time,” she says. “When people attach a lot of negative meanings to becoming anxious and think that it means they’re weak or something is terrible about them, it actually tends to make it worse.”

Instead, Teachman says, “What we want to help people do is figure out: How do you take the right level of precautions so that you’re doing things responsibly to stay safe and yet not live in a state of constant threat and constant fear?”

People can build up contact slowly, she says, assuming that they’re safely following CDC guidelines. “First, you can meet with one or two people doing something outdoors that you haven’t been doing. Then you can work up to meeting with a few people indoors,” she says. “You can do it step-by-step and build up so that each step adds a little bit of challenge. But you don’t have to go from zero to 100 in terms of level of difficulty.”


Considering one’s goals and values can be motivating, too, according to Teachman. Don’t deny your anxiety, she says. “Instead, think about: Are your goals to reconnect with a friend you haven’t had a chance to see in a long time?…Think about why you’re doing those kinds of interactions,” she says. “That can be what guides you, rather than being guided by, ‘Hey, do I feel anxious or not?’ “

As we emerge into post-pandemic life, we can expect lots of false alarms to go off, Teachman says. “It’s likely to be the case that when we’re told that it’s physically safe to do something again, it still creates a lot of apprehension. That false alarm is going off because we’ve learned that alarm over the last year or so when it was adaptive. But now, it’s no longer as sensible to have that alarm going off. We don’t want anxiety making the decision for us about what we do or don’t do.”

Instead, she suggests, “Have a systematic set of questions that you ask yourself: ‘Am I assuming the worst? Is there another way to look at this situation?’ Those kinds of questions will allow you to weigh the actual evidence a bit more systematically rather than just saying, ‘Hey, I have this feeling, and that’s what I need to respond to.'”

It can help to use accurate, up-to-date sources of information to find out what’s considered low-risk, Teachman says. “What are reliable, trusted sources during this time?” For example, the CDC offers a chart, “Choosing Safer Activities,” for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike. By using a plan instead of feelings to guide choices, “It will make it less overwhelming and out-of-control,” she says.

If people are really struggling to resume their lives, they should seek professional help, she says. “That desire to avoid is really strong when you’re anxious, but it makes the problem so much worse. The more people say, ‘I’m not going to go do this, it’s not OK to do this — all of those kinds of things — it’s going to get harder over time for that individual to re-enter situations.”

Making Her Way Back

As for Skinner, she’s slowly making her way forward from the pandemic. “I’m fully vaccinated, so I’m on my way to going back to normal. Now, I’m going out and eating at restaurants. I got a haircut yesterday, which is the first time in a year.”

After a long season of fear and foreboding, she’s surprised at how quickly she adapted. “I think there’s a level of comfort knowing that I’m fully vaccinated now,” she says.


When she began dining indoors again, “It was honestly weird because it felt completely normal. I thought that I’d sit there and freak out and want to cover my face the entire time, but it’s weird how quickly my body just went back to normal, like everything was fine. I guess if you’ve eaten inside restaurants for 30 years, one year out didn’t make a big difference.”

In May, she’ll take her first flight in more than a year. “I guess I’m a little worried about that. Flying kind of feels like a hotbed” for the coronavirus, she says. “Of course, I’ll wear my mask and I’ll take all the precautions and be as careful as possible. But hopefully, being fully vaccinated will protect me.”

She’ll be on her way to attend a wedding in New Orleans.

Sources:

Bhavesh Shah, president, True Talking Toastmasters, San Jose, CA.

Tam Le, vice president, True Talking Toastmasters, San Jose, CA.

Paige Skinner, freelance journalist, Dallas area.

Jonathan Kanter, PhD, director, Center for the Science of Social Connection, University of Washington.

W. Keith Sutton, PsyD, director, Bay Area Center for Anxiety, San Francisco Bay Area.

Bethany Teachman, PhD, psychology professor, University of Virginia; director, university’s Program for Anxiety, Cognition and Treatment (PACT) Lab.

American Psychological Association: “Stress In America Graphs.”

CDC: “Choosing Safer Activities” chart.


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