Addressing anxiety as restrictions ease
As we start to slowly and methodically ease restrictions, many of us find ourselves experiencing greater anxiety. During this time, it’s important to keep ourselves well informed and practice methods to help reduce the stress and worry that can come with more freedom during COVID-19.
Q: I’m confused. Now that our state is starting to ease restrictions, I feel more anxious. Yet I see many others who act like there’s no threat at all. What gives?
Coronavirus has given us a global rollercoaster ride. While scientists are working day and night to develop an effective vaccine, learn more about the virus, and find effective treatments for the infection, most of us are trying to figure out day-to-day how to stay safe and live our lives. Social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing, closing non-essential business, and sheltering at home are trusted methods of reducing the spread of viral infections—practiced during previous global pandemics, including the influenza pandemic of 1918.
In order to protect ourselves and reduce the demands on our health care system, we’ve been practicing an extreme form of avoidance.
It’s helped so far.
When we avoid a potential threat, our brains respond by increasing our sense of danger when we approach what we’ve been avoiding. In this instance, it’s other people. Our nervous system is complex. It has a biological bias towards the negative. Avoidance reinforces the feeling of danger. Consequently, some of us feel greater anxiety than we did when this all began. Furthermore, human beings are calmed by comforting cues provided by our social world. Facial expression, physical contact, and rhythmic tones of speech from others signal safety to our brains. These messages foster rest and relaxation. Social distancing and wearing masks prevent us from receiving these communications that signal well-being. The effect—our nervous system stays on alert.
Yet, at the same time, some adults appear to act like all is well. As time goes on, and infection rates decrease, our minds tell us that the danger is gone. We know fewer and fewer friends, neighbors, and relatives who have COVID. Our lack of exposure to infection provides us with a sense of safety. And, we desperately want to return to our normal, balanced state. We want to go back to our lives as they were. This can cause us to be less cautious.
This is when we need to use our brains. What are the facts? What do the experts tell us? What level of risk are we willing to endure? When should we ignore the messages we receive from our nervous system? How do we know what to do? What is a reasonable course of action?
So, let’s look at how to negotiate these conflicting currents.
Educate yourself. To a large degree, how much risk you’re willing to take is an individual and family decision. Better to make these decisions based on current knowledge, facts, and your individual situation rather than on vague sense of anxiety or a deep desire to get back to our old normal. The Center for Disease Control, Washington State Department of Health, and the Snohomish County Public Health department are reliable sources of information. Stay up-to-date on their recommendations.
Protect others—wear a mask when in public. I hate wearing a mask—it makes me look like a bank robber. But I don’t want to be a silent spreader of the virus, if I’m not symptomatic but COVID positive. It’s something that we do for others—and if we all do it, then it helps us too. We will feel safer and more secure as we venture out.
Embrace the new normal. Life is and will be different for the foreseeable future. Accept this new reality. Find peace and wellbeing within these new constraints.