It’s here. The long-anticipated return to life as we knew it pre-COVID—and claimed to miss—It’s finally here. Hugging is back. Eating out is back. Working in an office is back. People are back, back, back.

But all around there’s a sense of hesitancy. Stories from those who aren’t ready to dip a toe back into their normal social lives. “I’m not ready to fly,” “I just want to stay on the couch,” “Eventually I’m going to need to see people again, but I don’t want to.”

What’s happening? Weren’t we all longing to get back to “normal”?

Be Careful What You Wish For

It’s not all in your head. Americans are reporting significant levels of stress on par with the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, according to the American Psychological Association.1

If all this change is making you feel stressed, you may be experiencing post-pandemic reentry anxiety, or cave syndrome (a non-medical term possibly coined by psychiatrist Arthur Bergman, MD), and a form of agoraphobia. Though authorities have said the vaccinated no longer need to social distance or wear masks around others, the past 12–16-month period where most of us were locked down, working from home, and social distancing has taken a toll.

New routines have set in. Many of us have become accustomed to a slower pace of life and going back to the way things used to be, feels…stressful. Expanding your personal bubble to hugs and handshakes, shopping in a mall, and traveling on a plane—without feelings of anxiety—may just take some time.

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What is Re-Entry Anxiety, Also Known As Re-Entry Syndrome?

It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. Therapists are seeing an uptick in anxiety and social anxiety disorders from people who already suffered from anxiety sure, but also from others who have lived a more secluded life for the past fifteen months and now must emerge from their safe cocoons. One 2020 study found reentry is almost like an existential crisis after a traumatic event, on par with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).2

“In short, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” says Shamin Ladhani, PsyD, a psychologist consultant at DrShaminLadhani.com. “The more comfortable we get in our new normal, the more difficult it can be to re-integrate. We developed new routines and plans, and it changes how we interact with the world.”
Integrating back into society—filled with friends, family, and normal activity again isn’t like a light switch that can be flipped back on after an outage.

Ladhani says, we’ve settled into a new life and certain people may be more susceptible to becoming socially anxious after being isolated this long. The pandemic has become a recipe for the onset of social anxiety disorder.

“It’s easy to get accustomed to the narrowing of the world and get overstimulated by reentry—anybody who’s ever been in a darkened room for too long and goes out into the bright sun knows how disconcerting and vertiginous this can be,” explains Michael Alcee, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and also at the Manhattan School of Music.

In addition, Alcee says some of the new habits we’ve developed have many hidden and unexpected perks that so many of us don’t really want to go back to. Long commutes? Nope. Time-consuming makeup routines and high heels? Maybe not. Socially awkward small talk at the water cooler? No thanks. An imbalanced emphasis on work rather than play? Definitely not. “The pandemic has been the mother of invention in having us reimagine how it is we live—and how many ways, we’ve been missing out,” he says.

It’s ironic that when we can finally get back to the social life, we claimed we wanted, we may no longer want some of it.

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Vaccinated But Still Scared?

Read this if you've received your shot but still feel nervous.

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How to Reenter Cautiously

First, Alcee says, don’t forget that this has been a surreal and strange twilight zone episode of a year, and it’s natural for our psychological equilibrium to be totally out of whack.

Next, instead of judging yourself harshly for being fearful or cautious about making your way back into social norms, conjure a little Marie Kondo and figure out the people, places, and things that spark joy for you. “This pandemic has been a unique opportunity to weed out the people who aren’t really as supportive, affirming, or invested in your life,” says Alcee. So go with that.

What’s Causing Anxiety Post COVID?

Finally, question your fear. What are you worried about when you step back into public outings again? Is it a fear of rejection, or being a misfit amongst your social circles? Is it about your health or getting the virus despite vaccinations and other precautions? Is it about being “on” again in front of co-workers? “Asking yourself these questions may lead you to take some first steps,” says Ladhani.

9 Ways to Overcome Reentry Anxiety

#1. Enlist support.

Talk with and hang around others that help distract you and encourage you to be social. Being around people who understand and will gently nudge you forward may help you get over your reentry fears. “We’ve been out of the waters of socializing for way too long and it’s fair to be scared and worried about that first shock being submerged again,” says Alcee.

#2. Set boundaries.

Though authorities say it’s safe, it’s OK to have a different level of comfort with the new norms. Wear your mask if it makes you feel protected, hang out with only vaccinated friends if that’s right for you, skip concerts or crowded hotspots and build up to those bigger events by going at a pace you can tolerate. “Start with a small gathering of friends before you step into a party, for instance,” says Ladhani.

#3. Create a bucket list of things you’ve missed most.

Whether it’s shopping at your favorite store, going to an in-person book club, traveling, or dating, make note of what you wish to be able to get back to. Having some motivation for the activities and lifestyle you crave, can help with overcoming the anxiety about participating in them.

#4. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

While this can be tough, sometimes the anticipation of the event is worse than the actual event. “You need to prove to yourself that you can get out there and once you do, each subsequent social event will be easier,” says Ladhani. Research shows that exposing yourself to things you avoid helps you heal and gain confidence.

#5. Give yourself time to adjust.

The transition to lockdown felt weird and abnormal so why would the transition out of lockdown feel any different? Accept that there are new ways to do things and you’ll get the hang of it in time, just like you adjusted to a more isolated version of life at the beginning of the pandemic. “In fact, maybe we can learn from the ambiverts amongst us that the best of both worlds comes from treasuring our solo time and capitalizing on bursts of together time,” says Alcee.

#6. Keep what worked.

If your anxiety centers on returning to the pre-pandemic hustle and bustle of before, focus on the good that came from being locked down with loved ones. Keep newfound traditions like family puzzles, game night, or after-work bike rides with your partner. Create a plan to stick with these new activities long term such as focusing on better work-life balance once you head back to the office or spending more time in nature even when your social calendar gets overscheduled again. You can use reentry to cultivate resistance to activities and events that no longer interest you or that you discovered (during lockdown) you never really enjoyed anyway.

#7. Embrace a new you.

“You may make some choices that some of the rituals around hair, makeup, and dress don’t fit in with your life anymore and may lead you to change how you approach re-entry,” says Ladhani. Assess how those aspects of your daily grooming make you feel. If you’re confident in those newfound (and money-saving) freedoms found in going bare-faced or not dying/styling your hair, go with it. If not, step back and tweak your habits. Maybe you’d prefer wearing less makeup going forward or are ditching the heels. These are welcome changes if they’re right for you.

#8. Recognize and help others who may also be struggling.

If it’s not you but family or friends who are struggling with reentry anxiety (you’ll recognize them by their reticence to get back out there), talk with them honestly about their fears and offer to help be their encouragement and support. Maybe they’d come over and sit outside or go to one store with you. You can help be a catalyst for reticent family or friends by hanging out, traveling, or socializing on smaller scales that they’re more comfortable with. By the same token, if they’re not willing to make any progress, you might recommend they talk to a professional.

#9. Seek treatment.

For most, reentry anxiety will fade as you develop a new normal but if you’re still struggling with fears of getting back into the swing of things, it’s affecting your relationships or daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help to get you over the hump. Sometimes we get stuck in a loop or develop a fear that might be unfounded upon further examination. It can often take working with a professional, whether an in-person therapist or a virtual one, to give you the tools you need to get back out there.

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Last Updated: Jul 15, 2021