That’s likely to change. For many, myself included, the anxiety is hitting even before a shot enters the arm. “The anticipation of social interactions is often what’s hardest,” Brown says. “The anticipatory anxiety of what that will be like might actually be worse than the reality of how bad the anxiety actually is once it’s here, but it’s that buildup period that can be very nerve-racking for people.” Welcome to the buildup period.
The good news is that we can mitigate these symptoms. The first step is to stay present. Easier said than done, but when you feel the future-oriented thoughts creeping in, Brown says, try to catch them and remind yourself not to worry about the summer until, well, summer. “When we’re thinking about the future we’re feeling anxious, and when we’re thinking about the past we tend to be feeling sad. And so the goal is, as much as possible, to try and stay just in the here and now.”
Above all we need to make agreements to be nice to ourselves. Richard Heimberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and former director of its Adult Anxiety Clinic, notes that this kindness will be especially necessary since the anxious and nonanxious alike will have some “rust.” Even the things that felt second nature in the Before Times, like commuting or working in an office, could stir up some discomfort after an entire year without practice. “The level of anxiety that we [all] feel in general is going to be elevated because of the health concerns and because of the rust concerns,” he says. It’s important to make sure any goals we set for ourselves takes this into account, and that we treat them as aspirational rather than prescriptive.
“If we expect ourselves to behave perfectly,” says Heimberg, “then we’re going to beat ourselves up if we don’t reach that standard.” For some, reemergence might be more of a slow wiggle out than a clean break through our shells, and that’s OK. “It’s about accepting that everybody else is as worried about what we think of them as the other way around. And it’s about giving ourselves the chance to simply be human.”
With lives on the line, the threat of Covid-19 empowered many of us with the confidence to say no—to others and to ourselves. The few social outings I did manage to have in lockdown have fortunately come with an extra layer of sensitivity from friends and family. I did my best to provide the same to them. Perhaps most important, the circumstances led me to extend that policy of judgment-free acceptance to myself as well. And I’m not ready to give it up.
I don’t have to. That honesty with ourselves and others about what we’re comfortable with and what we actually want to do doesn’t have to disappear along with the virus. In fact, all the practice navigating conversations about what settings and activities we’re OK with, virus-wise, might just leave us better off.
“This pandemic has created language for people to start expressing how their comfort levels might be different from their friends’, and I think that’s an awesome start,” Brown says. “When the context is different, and the virus is less of a reason why you can’t engage socially, I think people are still going to need to be setting those boundaries from themselves … Not that they should be saying no to everything, but that you should be saying yes to the things that could bring you joy.”
In a perfect world, I’d Marie Kondo the hell out of my social life post-vaccine—doing the things that make me happy and saying no to the things that don’t. I’d burst the pandemic bubble without losing any of my pandemic perspective. Of course, it’s never quite that simple. I’m still the same person. Expectations will inevitably sneak in. Occasionally I’ll do things I don’t want to, or I’ll look around and wonder whether my decisions are the right ones. But hopefully, I’ll be a little kinder to myself along the way.