The unexpected anxiety of emerging from quarantine

Hermit crab walking. Isolated on a white background.Other shots in this series:
busypix/E+/Getty Images
Originally Published: 

As of this coming Friday, I will be considered fully vaccinated. I feel simultaneously lucky and also, low-key terrified. I'm excited to reenter the world of real human bodies, but suddenly I have events to choose from, so FOMO is back. Even though I have still barely left the house, I already have less time for the extravagant personal rituals that kept me stable during lockdown — two hours a day of yoga is hard to fit into “real life” — so I’m frazzled. I know it’s been an eternity, but it now feels like it’s happening so fast and I’m feeling the acute anxiety of re-entering the world we once knew.

First of all, if you’re nervous about this next phase of life, it doesn’t mean you’re neurotic or maladjusted. “If you feel some anxiety, it’s because you’re smart,” says Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. “Anxiety is an important survival tool,” she reminds us. What we refer to as anxiety is a physiological response to stress that puts our bodies into alert mode — by speeding up our heart rate and breathing — so we can spring into action in case there’s danger. So while the experience of having anxiety may be uncomfortable, it can also be really useful.

To be clear, not all anxiety is useful, and even people who don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder may feel more of it these days than they can reasonably deal with. “Some anxiety will make you more thoughtful and compassionate,” Daramus says, “but if the anxiety is really painful then you might need a therapist or a support group.” Listen to your body and take care of yourself. If you feel just enough anxiety to stay masked up when you should be and it’s not debilitating, it’s probably fine. If you are quaking in fear at the thought of making groceries, don’t ignore that fear. Seek support and take it slow.

Also, as Daramus noted, the apprehensive feelings some of us are having are pretty justified. “COVID-19 is still out there,” she says. “The pandemic is still happening, so it’s smart to be cautious,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, a psychotherapist in NYC. In other words, because COVID-19 is still a threat, you should still be cautious, and your anxiety may help you stay careful.

EasyPx/500px/Getty Images

I often liken having anxiety to having an unreasonable fear that there’s a tiger lurking behind every nook and cranny, but in the case of COVID-19, the tiger is not only real, but we also can’t see it. So while we vaccinated ones are, generally speaking, much safer than we were a few months ago, it’s reasonable to be scared of something that is actually threatening.

The vaccine rollout means that we are moving forward in promising ways, so it’s easy to get overzealous and try to jump right back into maskless orgies — er, dinner parties — but all of the experts I spoke with cautioned against it. “We have been through a collective trauma over the last year,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. We owe it to ourselves, and each other, to respect that trauma.

“Be as gentle with yourself as you would with anyone else who has just experienced a traumatic event,” Goerlich says. Think about it this way: If you were hanging out with a friend who had just been in a bad car accident, you probably wouldn’t take them right from the hospital to a raging party. The same logic applies here. “Slow, acclimatizing, experiences are better than jumping into the deep end and being unprepared for how you may respond,” says Goerlich. Pitagora agrees, and reminds us that not everyone is going to move at the same pace. “It’s totally fine if your process seems slower than the people around you,” they say.

Having a plan may help you cope with the combination of real risk and anxiety, and it also may be a resource that helps you navigate yet another uncertain time. “A re-entry plan will help you set some priorities,” Daramus says. She recommends reflecting on what is actually important to you going forward so that you can make choices with purpose and confidence. “Think about what you have missed the most this year,” she says. Is it family and friends? Live music? Going to the store instead of having things delivered?

You can make a re-entry timeline and ruleset if you’re a planning nerd like me. Write it out, talk it, plan it out. You can do this alone or, if it feels good, with your family or pod. And if you feel like you need support, Daramus recommends creating your own support group. It’s easy to set up an online meeting or create a Clubhouse chat for your squad about re-entry. Last week I was in a room called something like, “Anxious queers talk about life after COVID … can we make out now or what?” This is all to say: However you feel right now, you are not alone and other people want to talk about it, too.

You can also ease your transition by doing some things outside and some things online. The thing I’ve probably missed most about this past year is yoga — both teaching it and taking classes with other people. Right now, I am dividing both my teaching and my studenting between the Zoomiverse and my favorite backyard studio. Last week I taught my first in-person class in a full year. It was glorious. And also, when I left, I felt really overstimulated and cried to some friends over Zoom. Try and honor your emotions, whatever they look like. “We’ve spent the last year training our brains to be hyper-aware of a deadly risk. We can’t just shut that off,” says Goerlich.

Some people don’t seem to understand my anxiety. Those lucky bastards are just unproblematically excited. That’s cool. I’m not mad. But it does mean that we may have different ideas about how to move back into public social life. As usual, that means boundaries and conversations about boundaries. “While we’re waiting for conditions to be safer so we can socialize and move around in the world again, we can do some introspecting about what our boundaries are right now and practice communicating those boundaries with people we trust,” says Pitagora. So this moment of pause, then, can actually be really useful in giving us time to talk about and plan for what we want to happen next.

“You’re probably still going to need to have some conversations about social distancing,” Daramus says. And, again, it’s okay if your ideas don’t exactly line up with the people around you, as long as you’re willing to talk it out. At this point in the pandemic, most people are pretty understanding about issues of emotional health. Also, I don’t know who needs to hear this, but just because the CDC says something is safe doesn’t mean you have to do it immediately. “If the experts say something is safe but you’re not ready for it,” says Daramus, “come out of your COVID shell gradually.”