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How Reopening the Country Might Be Affecting Your Mental Health

Multiethnic crowd of people in medical masks

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Key Takeaways

  • As the economy reopens and states begin lifting stay-at-home orders, we need to mentally prepare for a new normal.
  • Practice caution when adding socialization and other pre-COVID-19 behaviors back into your life.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if the stress of reopening is negatively affecting your mental health.

If you’re anxious, worried, or concerned about life after the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. As we emerge from our homes to resume work, shopping, dining out, exercise, and daily life, many of us are scrutinizing routine decisions we once thought nothing of—not to mention, we’re also facing the reality that our health and financial well-being is much different now than it was going into quarantine. 

Plus, there is still a lot we don't know. Like how safe is it to resume daily life without a vaccine? And how should we feel about states being on different timelines? Even as things open up, there are still complicated feelings and thoughts about being around other people.

We talked with five mental health experts about the psychology of opening back up and how we can adapt to the new normal.

How to Manage Re-Entry Anxiety

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has impacted our mental health. But now, as we begin the process of restarting our lives and the economy, many people are balancing the need to socialize and regain some kind of normalcy with the lingering dangers of being in crowded spaces and potentially risking exposure to the virus. Experts are calling this crossroads of emotions “re-entry anxiety.” 

One of the top concerns is how to deal with the stress and anxiety that people around you might be infected or contagious, which also extends to feeling awkward when near strangers.

To help ease some of this fear anxiety, the first thing experts recommend is that you only do what's comfortable for you and go at your own pace. 

“We have to think about this as a long-term strategy, over months or probably a year or so,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of Innovation 360. Take your time through the process and don't let anyone make you feel like you have to be comfortable going back to normal right away.

Besides going at your own pace, a good place to start says Gilliland is to focus on the things you actually have control over, like your behavior in relation to the virus, since it’s the best strategy when we have uncertainty. This includes being factual and specific with your thoughts because worry hates that. 

Kevin Gilliland, PsyD

We have no idea who is infected and who isn’t, so we still need to social distance, wash our hands frequently, sanitize surfaces at home and work regularly, and be mindful of how much and how many articles and news stories we are watching and reading.

— Kevin Gilliland, PsyD

From there, we can continue to do things to maintain a strong immune system like being physically active, getting seven or eight hours of sleep, and connecting with two or three people that know you well. 

As for the need to socialize, Gilliland says we desperately need to get this back in our lives, but we need to be mindful of distance and touch. Start with a small circle of close friends and get together outside in a park or yard or trail. Walk and talk and share about life and be careful that it’s not all about this virus.

Also, be aware of the people you surround yourself with. Are there people you talk to that increase your anxiety or decrease your anxiety about this issue? “More is not always better when it comes to anxiety,” says Gilliland. 

Why Seeing People in Masks Is Contributing to Re-Entry Anxiety

For many people, walking around in a mask surrounded by others wearing masks provokes feelings of fear and uncertainty. 

“People feel anxiety and fear when wearing a mask or seeing others wear masks because it is a visual and constant reminder of the threat we are under,” says Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of practice development at Community Psychiatry. The mask symbolizes the virus which lurks out there and ignites fears of lack of control and of an unseen enemy.

Many people are also struggling with face coverings because they prevent us from seeing each other. “Seeing faces is a very important aspect of our socialization,” says Allie Shapiro, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. Not seeing faces, she says, removes that familiarity and connection. 

Wearing or seeing someone wear a mask reminds us of the greater issue, which, Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, Talkspace therapist says our minds often react to immediately. “We can go into fight or flight mode, and living in this constant state of hyper-arousal affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she adds. To minimize the effects of this hyper-arousal, Catchings recommends the following strategies:

  • Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or meditation
  • Stick to regular bedtime and waking times
  • Exercise during the day
  • Don’t be afraid to use crying as a release since it may help to cope with anger
  • Talk to an empathetic friend, family member, or therapist
  • Journal or engage in creative art
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Use creative visioning and imagine yourself safe and healthy

If you experience increased anxiety while walking around in a mask, Shapiro says to pause where you are and try taking a few deep breaths. It’s also a good idea to remind yourself why you’ve gone outside and remember that you are doing the best you can to keep yourself safe.

Gelbart suggests that people remind themselves that things like handwashing, social distancing, and wearing a mask—all of which provide some measure of control and makes the unknowable known—reduces fear and anxiety. It’s also beneficial to remind yourself that wearing a mask is an act of kindness and care for others.

Balancing the Need for Normalcy While Feeling Unsafe

As different parts of the country open up at their own speed, Shapiro says it’s important to realize that acting, feeling, and being normal is going to look different now. Even in places that are now open, or were never closed, to begin with, things look and feel different. “Knowing you have full control to keep yourself safe, can make accepting the change easier,” she says. 

After all, it’s not the crowded space that is the source of danger, it’s the virus. “Wearing protective gear, like a mask, and staying vigilant, as we are now accustomed to doing, drastically reduces the risk of infection,” adds Shapiro.

Additionally, Dayry Hulkow, primary therapist at Arete Recovery, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group, recommends exercising prudence while tending to our emotional and social needs in a responsible manner. “We can evaluate the necessity or benefits compared to the risks associated with specific places and situations,” she says.

For example, the necessity for grocery shopping may take precedence for most of us despite the risks. Also, getting a hair cut or going to the gym may outweigh the risks for many of us, whereas other more crowded spaces may pose increased risks which, Hulkow says wouldn’t seem worth it for some of us regardless of the potential benefits. 

And Gelbart agrees. “Our behaviors are risk-reward based, and each of us has our own needs, and our own levels of risk we are willing to take and are justified in whatever our reaction and decision may be,” he says. We balance the need to get out with the fear we experience by how necessary the action is to us.

For example, going to a restaurant is really necessary for some, and for others, not important at all. He stresses the need to accept our own limits and boundaries and to resist the pressure of other people’s choices.

Why It’s Normal to Feel Scared 

The news and social media paint a picture of people feeling pure joy and elation about being out of quarantine. But what if you have mixed emotions about re-entry? Is it normal to still feel scared? 

Yes, says Hulkow. “After all we’ve seen in the news during the pandemic and experienced in real life, feeling scared, stressed, and anxious is 100 percent valid,” she explains. That said, Hulkow does stress the importance of working through these feelings and exploring ways of coping. 

For some people, particularly those within vulnerable populations, continuing to stay home may be preferable for the time being. However, Hulkow points out that staying home solely out of fear may keep other people from living life in general, whether outside or inside the home. “While it may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first to venture out, it is possible for most of us to safely return to some sort of “normal” within a reasonable time.

Moe Gelbart, PhD

It’s not only normal to feel scared but very appropriate. The more unknown something is, the less control we feel we have, and the more our feelings of anxiety and fear are spiked.

— Moe Gelbart, PhD

That’s why Gelbart says it’s important to know that we can listen to our feelings of fear, or we can act differently despite them. But most importantly, he says, we need to acknowledge and validate the feelings we experience as normal.

“It’s not unusual for some people to continue to be worried or avoid moving back into life,” says Gilliland. However, he does stress the need to be careful and not to allow worry to spill over into anxiety and fear, or our life may become very limited. And again, be factual.

“Isolation is not good for humans, even when it’s the right thing medically. If we disconnect from others and from things that are beneficial in our life, our levels of anxiety, depression, and substance use increase,” says Gilliland. 

What This Means For You

No one has ever been through anything like this in the modern world, so no one really knows how to do it “right.” Even the experts don’t have all the answers, so it’s normal to have your own uncertainties and doubts. 

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