How many times during the COVID-19 pandemic have you uttered the words, “I just can’t wait for things to get back to the way they used to be!”? After more than a year of uncertainty, people are aching for their normal daily lives to resume … or are they? As it turns out, now that most of our country has opened (to varying degrees) and life as we once knew it is slowly returning, there is yet another layer of trepidation being levied upon us by COVID-19 — this time, in the form of something psychologists have dubbed “re-entry anxiety.”

Unpacking COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety

Like schools all around the world, Fairmont Schools in Orange County has faced a number of challenges related to COVID-19 — from how to educate students in a remote format to how to manage the health and safety of the on-campus learning community. A return to normal may not be as simple as rolling back restrictions.

“For many people, COVID has been a traumatic experience,” said Jill Thomas, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Fairmont. “There will be after-shocks from the pandemic, and we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that it will take some time and effort to recover from them as we begin to shift back to old routines — both for adults and for children.”

Those whose emotional wounds are “superficial” may require relatively little time to rebound and fully re-engage in life as they once knew it. But for those who have suffered more significant trauma — such as overwhelming concern that they would contract the virus, the loss of a loved one, or the feeling that part of their life has been taken away by the pandemic — recovering from this event may be more involved. They may feel a sense of angst about resuming their pre-COVID lives — which is the essence of re-entry anxiety.

Still, regardless of where you are on the spectrum of thoughts and emotions as you move forward, Thomas and other experts say that there are several steps you can take to rebuild your emotional resilience.

Overcoming COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: Focus on What You Can Control

Feeling out of control is a major contributor to anxiety. “Recognizing and working on what you can control can be a valuable step in overcoming anxiety,” said Richa Bhatia, MD, a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Make choices to do things that will empower you in your re-entry journey rather than work against you. For instance:

  • Write down your concerns and put them into two categories — things you have control over and things you don’t. When a fearful thought enters your mind (likely about something you cannot control), be intentional about shifting your thinking toward something you can control. Instead of “If I get together with a friend, I may get infected,” say “If I get together with a friend, I will do it outside where we can keep a comfortable distance from one another.” It’s important to separate fear from caution.
  • Keep your media exposure in check. With a 24/7 news cycle, we are constantly bombarded with stories about COVID-19. Limit the amount of news you take in so it doesn’t consume you. And make sure you are seeking information only from reliable medical sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. You may also want to consider taking a break from social media during this transition time.

Overcoming COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: Begin Gradually

Sometimes, less is more. If you are struggling with re-entry anxiety, start by taking small steps. Want to go out to a restaurant? Choose to sit outside and socially distance rather than eating indoors. Ready to go shopping at your favorite mall? Try going during non-peak hours when fewer people are likely to be there.

“Some therapists call this exposure therapy because you’re exposing manageable levels of anxiety into your daily life,” said Dr. Bhatia. “Do not let yourself end it early or give in to unrealistic anxiety … complete the step and then set a new goal. If you give in to panic, your anxiety will drop when you ‘run,’ or leave the plan, but now you’ve just rewarded yourself for withdrawing and made it hard to move forward again.”

Overcoming COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: Start Sooner than Later

When something makes us uneasy, we are tempted to ignore it to help quel the uncomfortable feeling. However, according to Fairmont Schools’ Jill Thomas, choosing to avoid and address our feelings is an unhealthy practice. And the longer we wait to take action, the more unhealthy it becomes. “We need to start re-engaging in our world,” said Thomas. “The sooner someone is willing to take steps — even baby steps — to address things that cause them concern, the quicker they will get their anxiety in check. It’s important to expect a certain amount of discomfort in the process; it’s equally important to work through it.”

If you’re having trouble overcoming your anxiety, Thomas suggests connecting with a “buddy” to help you take steps toward re-entry. Engaging in a friendly and safe partnership will allow you to be encouraged, understood, and held accountable — thereby increasing the likelihood of successfully overcoming your anxious feelings.

Overcoming COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: Take Care Of Yourself

Stress is hard on both the mind and the body. Practice good self care as you attempt to re-engage, post-COVID. Eat a nutritious diet so your body has the fuel it needs to be at its best. Physical activity reduces stress, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, so incorporate some type of exercise into your routine. This might also help improve the quantity and quality of your sleep — another important component of keeping anxiety at bay.

And try these activities to support your mind with some extra TLC:

  • Practice “mindfulness intervention” techniques, such as focusing on your breathing and your senses.
  • Do things that are personally fulfilling — listen to your favorite music, spend time in the garden, play with your pet.
  • Think about the things for which you are grateful, write them down, and then refer back to them to help you keep things in perspective.
  • Have grace for yourself. It’s been a long, hard year, so be patient with yourself and reflect on all of the ways you’ve grown over the course of the pandemic.

Overcoming COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: Children and the Social Side of the Equation

While fear of catching the COVID-19 virus is the root cause of re-entry anxiety for many people, the prospect of re-entering socially is the culprit for others. Those who work in education, like Thomas, are particularly mindful about how this is playing out with children. “Social interaction is a skill. After not exercising that skill for a long period of time, it can get rusty. This has the potential to trigger anxiety for some kids as they move from remote learning back into the classroom.”

Mitigating social re-entry anxiety in children is vital, given all of the evidence that kids do best when they are physically present at school. In a joint statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and the School Superintendents Association said, “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online.”

“To readjust to ‘in-real-life’ interactions with peers, they [children] may have to go through some trial and error,” said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of Child Mind Institute. “Some will make mistakes and get hurt. There is no instant fix for kids who are navigating social, academic and emotional challenges that we have no experience with. You can’t protect a child from the trials of life. But you can give kids armor by creating a loving scaffold to help them grow.”

How to Help Your Children with Re-Entry Anxiety

Koplewicz is a proponent of “scaffold parenting,” which views the child as a building and parents as a scaffold — that is, “the framework that guides and protects as the child rises and grows.” By employing the three pillars of scaffolding, Koplewicz says that parents can help ease their children’s social re-entry:

  • Provide Support — Be empathetic, validate their feelings, and seek professional intervention if their level of anxiety becomes of concern
  • Provide Structure — Add routine and scheduling back into life to help provide a sense of security and order, allowing children to know what to expect
  • Provide Encouragement — Give children the emotional motivation they may need to socially re-engage, as well as suggestions for non-threatening ways they can begin the process (e.g., schedule a short in-person get-together with a trusted friend).

Parents aren’t the only people who can help move the needle toward successful social re-entry. Teachers, among the most influential people in a child’s life, can also play a significant role in scaffolding. “Teachers need to make sure that their students are known as individuals,” said Joanna Yujuico, Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, who works with Thomas at Fairmont Schools. “That is the first step in making meaningful connections that help students feel safe and cared for. As our teachers welcome students back to on-campus learning and as our communities slowly open to reflect a post-COVID time, they intentionally create safe spaces for building community, practicing relationship skills, and taking time to breathe and be mindful.”

Koplewicz sums it up well. “If enough parents and teachers start scaffolding our kids now, we ease them back into the social world. If we don’t, our children will lose even more of their childhood to the virus.”

Interested in learning more about how Fairmont Schools is helping kids work through re-entry anxiety and get back to business as usual? Please contact us!