Written by therapist Clair Miller
After the weirdness of the last year and a half, as things are opening back up and the COVID concerns are lessening, have you noticed a spike in your own anxiety?
If you have, trust me- you’re not alone!
A Sudden Spike
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my friends, colleagues, and clients about anxiety, especially social anxiety. In this season, it seems like a LOT of us are experiencing new waves of anxiety about “normal” things. Going to work, taking public transportation, traveling, meeting friends out in public… these are all things that most of us did on a regular basis before COVID. For many, those things were normal – they were non-issues or even fun things. For those of us with some social anxiety, we may not have enjoyed these things but had likely gotten into a routine where they were do-able, without much distress. As covid is feeling more manageable, we’re slowly getting to do all those things we’ve missed; so why are so many of us feeling more anxious?! Are we backsliding?
I think there are a couple of explanations for a spike in anxiety. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a few themes I’ve noticed personally and in my work that seem to be affecting many people right now. By understanding some of these potentially contributing factors, I’m hoping to normalize this experience and encourage our efforts to cope and re-engage.
The coronavirus induced a unique (for many of us) kind of collective fear on a global scale. The virus was (and is) scary, and we were told over and over again how dangerous and deadly it was, how ill-prepared we all were to handle it, how unpredictable and unknown it was, and how uncertain our future was as a result. We heard and saw truly scary stories play out and had to adapt to this scary but kind of unknown reality. And now, we’re being asked to re-engage with all the things that were risky and scary. Of course we’re going to have hesitations! Those stories and warnings don’t disappear overnight. We’ve got to give ourselves more time to watch and see, and then trust that things are safer or less risky.
Another reason I think anxiety might be surfacing for people right now is pretty simple: we’re experiencing a big transition, on a global and likely personal level. If we know anything about transitions, we know that they are classic anxiety-inducers. Whether you are transitioning back to the office, or to being more intentionally social with friends, if it is a change in your routine of the past year or so (even if it is a “return to normal”), it is a disruption, and your mind and body need time to adjust to the change. Eventually, you’ll integrate back into your routine and will likely see that transition anxiety dissipate over time.
One last reason that comes to mind to make sense of a higher level of anxiety right now is a lack of exposure to these stressors. We know that one of the best methods of treatment for anxieties of various kinds is that of exposure. What we like to do when we’re anxious or distressed by something is to avoid it. This feels like a nice escape in the moment, but then makes the distress worse the next time. To see that anxiety consistently decrease, we need exposure to the stressor so that our minds and bodies can get used to the experience and adapt to deal with it. For those of us who might have a natural tendency towards anxiety about some of these things (socializing, crowds, public transit, work meetings, etc.), we likely built up a tolerance to them over time because of repeated exposure. We had to get to work so we had to take the crowded train to sit through work meetings. But for the past year, we’ve had virtually no exposure to those stressors! Which may have made our anxiety lessen for the time being, but meant that we lost our tolerance. This again is just an adjustment that takes time. The exposure usually works, the distress tolerance will likely come back with practice. So take a breath and have grace with yourself as you engage.
For those of you experiencing some post-quarantine anxiety, I hope this helps normalize some of what you’re feeling and gives you some very real hope that we’re all adjusting. Be patient with and take care of yourself as you re-adapt! If you’d like to explore this or other anxieties, give our front desk a call. We’d love to match you with a therapist to explore it with you!