Five weeks after receiving my second Moderna vaccine, I finally attempted something slightly more ‘daring’ than walking my terrier-mix Shea around the block. (Naturally, I am double-masked and gloved during the dog pee, poop, and bark-madly-at-pigeons excursions!) My extraordinary feat was taking the New York City subway for the first time in 13 months. I was aboard for one four-minute stop, during which I held my breath as best as possible while the train car carrying a handful of masked passengers rumbled through the tunnel.

While clearly, I survived the experience, I still found myself fearful of a face-to-face visit with my sister who five months earlier had moved to Florida. Barb was flying in to see her daughter and—if I could gather the courage—me! Since all of us (including my partner Paul) had been vaccinated according to the CDC’s latest guidelines we could gather indoors—even without masks! It’s not that I don’t trust the efficacy of those two four-week-apart shots in my arm…intellectually. Emotionally I was playing catch-up.

The trauma of 2019 which had me dealing not just with COVID-19 but breast cancer (after outpatient surgery, chemo, and radiation I am doing great!) radically changed my risk-taking comfort level. I’d never been foolhardy but the pre-pandemic me was often the first in a group to volunteer for exploits such as riding atop a snorting ostrich—bumpy but thrilling.

A more serious leap: At midlife, I quit a secure, well-paying editing job to enroll in social work school. Nowadays, if not for the needs of my four-legged ‘ruler’ I’d happily huddle at home 24/7. Scrolling through iPhone pictures from BP (Before Pandemic) causes deep sighs of wonderment that my world used to regularly include restaurant dining, movie and theater excursions, plus hosting annual parties with 20 people packed into my small apartment! Nowadays if there is someone sharing my building’s elevator when Shea and I are headed outside my heart starts frenetically beating and I turn my double-masked face to the wall.

Of course, I’m not the only one suffering from what has been coined Post-COVID Stress Disorder.

A February 2021 survey, Stress in America, conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 49% of respondents who’ve had the vaccine remain uneasy about in-person interactions.  Indeed APA’s chief executive officer Arthur C. Evans, PhD, has commented, “This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical consequences for years to come.”

Show Me Your Vaccination Card: Extended, Enforced Hibernation Takes A Toll

While grateful she and her husband are fully vaccinated, Florida-based *Ellen Tarcher doesn’t see herself ever returning to her former gregarious ways. “Human beings are in unknown territory. We’re coming out of something overwhelming and consuming that impacted the entire world! My husband and I lost a family member as well as 37 acquaintances to COVID-19.”

The sculptor sighs, “For a year we couldn’t hug people. I was afraid to open our door to a messenger delivering birthday flowers! People fought over a pack of toilet paper. Now, who do you want to connect with? What are you comfortable doing with another human being outside a family member you’ve been marooned with for over a year? Should I ask a friend to show me his or her vaccination card before agreeing to meet? People can’t come out of this horror all at once.”

Adding to the communal difficulty involved in navigating our way in a post-pandemic world, experts’ proclamations of what is safe and not safe to do once vaccinated seem to change almost daily. And there is little clear guidance on how long our immunity to COVID-19 post-vaccine will last—Six months? A year? And what about the variants?

For some guidance I spoke to Miranda Kofeldt, PhD, LP, Clinical Quality Assurance Advisor of Integrated Medical Case Solutions (IMCS Group), the leading health provider in worker’s compensation treatment and recovery. IMCS recently launched the COVID-19 Rebound Program to help impacted workers suffering from COVID-19 related anxiety and/or depression. Kofeldt affirmed my belief that the PTSD-like anxiety sparked by the pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. “This kind of anxiety and fear take time to recover from. We’ve gotten into a way of life that isn’t normal but currently feels normal.”

Her comment, “Also contributing to our anxiety is the clear split in opinion about COVID-19 in how seriously people take it,” made me laugh uneasily in recognition of my sorest spot: anger and fear of the maskless.

Training Wheels

Pre-pandemic, pre-cancer diagnosis I loved walking in my hood. I live by the water with views of the Manhattan skyline. Once peaceful and serene, now a stroll stokes anxiety. I glare at clots of people picnicking on blankets, laughing and chewing…Even when they’re yards and yards away, observing their seeming indifference to potential danger in the air I’m triggered to memories of last summer when I was doing chemo followed by radiation. My immune system was compromised and seeing a human in the flesh outside my pod (Paul and Shea) could send me into panic attack territory.

A 2020 study bears out Dr. Kofeldt’s suggestion of easing reentry fears with meditation apps like Breethe and Headspace. And for those who prefer non-meditative methods, deep breathing can offer stress relief even for the Type A’s of the world.

After seeing on Facebook that a trusted friend, Amy Ferris, and her husband Ken (both vaccinated) had recently traveled into Manhattan from Pennsylvania for the first time in over a year, I called for the lowdown. “Were you scared?” I asked.

Ferris, an author, and co-director of the Story Summit Writer’s School said, “It felt good but very, very tentative. We were visiting a sick friend. Normally Ken and I would see lots of people during a visit, but this time we didn’t want to socialize. At night we brought food back to our hotel.”

“Still, you did it! The first step back.”

What ultimately got me to tell Paul, “Hell, yeah, let’s take a drive to see my sister and my niece,” was advice I give my psychotherapy patients about not letting fear rule their decision-making.

“If you are debating doing something scary honor the fear by making a pro/con list. If the pros win, sit with the fear a minute or two, then breathe out, let it go, and do an activity/action that engages your mind—a phone call, a walk, whatever…Also, remember when you learned to ride a bike? You didn’t leap into a 12-mile race. You started with slow jaunts using training wheels. It’s not the discomfort of anxiety you want to avoid but being on your deathbed regretting all the shoulda woulda coulda’s.”

When I rang the buzzer outside my niece’s building, my sister flew down the stairs. She grabbed me in a hug. (We were both masked!) At first, I pulled my body away but then eased into it–training wheels! We rocked back and forth. Soon I was squashing her with the ferocity of my hug. The caterpillar emerging from the chrysalis.

It felt like coming home.

*Name and identifying information changed

Last Updated: Apr 16, 2021