April 19, 2021

The Paradox of Re-Entry Anxiety

    Late last February, pre-pandemic, I received a distress call from my daughter in San Francisco. She planned to be married in late May 2020, at a three-day event in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

   “My wedding is ruined,” she said. 

   “What?” I said. “No, no. Don’t lose hope. Your wedding will be fine.”

   My brain told me the wedding would go on. But my instincts jumped online and ordered a freezer from Lowe’s. My instincts ran out to Whole Foods and ordered enough chicken to fill the new freezer. My instincts drove to Wal-Mart and stuffed as much toilet paper as I could fit into two carts that I awkwardly maneuvered around a store sprinkled with a few humans, most of them employees. An almost empty Wal-Mart, frozen in time. 

      More than a year later, my brain and my instincts are battling again. My brain wants to welcome the world, to hug my children, to talk again in person to family and friends. My instincts tell me to be smart. To be cautious. To shrug off the social pressure of maskless gatherings and honor my concerns.  

     An American Psychological Association survey tells us that almost half of Americans – vaccinated or not – are anxious about re-entry. They – we – are not sure how to manage it.

     I’ve read the experts. I’ve taken notes and talked endlessly to myself about what I’m feeling, and how to set boundaries. I’ve rehearsed the words that will help me set those boundaries. Here’s the list I’ve compiled. I read it regularly now, before I head out into the world. I hope it helps you too.

1.     Determine your comfort levels, then articulate boundaries clearly. Own them. Rehearse. “I am uncomfortable with …. And I would feel much better if …. “ That way, when you are caught in the moment, the words are ready. 

2.     Acknowledge and make space for feelings, both negative and positive. Re-entering the world requires a learning curve. Accept that the future embraces a new normal, and that we don’t yet know what that new normal looks like. “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new,” Socrates said.

3.     Take care of your body. A pandemic is a trauma. Sleep for however long you need. Eat plants and protein. Exercise at least half an hour a day. 

4.     Set small goals. What have you missed most this past year? Within your comfort levels, slowly reintroduce those pastimes. If you are anxious, emerge from the protection of your Covid shell gradually. And if you have so-called friends who make your fear fodder for jokes, avoid them. Socialize with individuals who respect your concerns. 

5.     When particularly stressed, I fall off my chair watching reruns of “The Nanny.” (Maybe you had to grow up in Queens to appreciate Fran?) Employ de-stressing techniques: go for a walk, write down your worries, follow a meditation app, sing a song. If it sounds ridiculous, do it anyway.

6.     Look ahead and plan a lunch, dinner, a trip, months from now.

7.     Look back and make a list of what you won’t miss. 

    I recommend the philosophy of the British novelist and social commentator J.B. Priestly, who said,  “I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.”

    Breathe deeply. Spend time in nature. Continue doing what you’ve been doing, and a little bit more. Look for, and I suspect you will find, that magic, laying in wait, hoping to be discovered, in the miracle that is each new day.

For the purposes of this blog, consider how you feel about re-entering the world. Write about those feelings. Share them with a being you love: a partner, a family member or friend, a pet. Feel free, too, to send your writing to me. I’d like to read it.

— Jane