As daily life slowly creeps back to pre-pandemic routines, some feel dread
Psychologists call it re-entry fear. They’re finding it more common as we head toward a post-COVID pandemic world.
Dinner reservations are gleefully being made again. Long-canceled vacations are being booked. People are coming together again in some of the ways they used to.
But not everyone is racing back as we head toward a post-coronavirus pandemic world.
Stories are emerging as the world begins to reopen of some people secretly dreading each milestone toward normalcy, envisioning instead anxiety-inducing crowds and awkward catch-up conversations. Even small tasks outside the home — a trip to the grocery store or returning to the office — can feel overwhelming.
Psychologists call it re-entry fear.
“I have embraced and gotten used to this new lifestyle of avoidance that I can’t fathom going back to how it was,” says Thomas Pietrasz, who lives alone and works from his home in the Chicago suburbs as a content creator. “I have every intention of continuing to isolate myself.”
Pietrasz says his alcohol and marijuana use increased during the pandemic and that his anxiety has grown markedly worse as talk of post-vaccine life grows. He says he got used to “hiding at home and taking advantage of curbside and delivery in order to avoid every situation with people.”
As the world edges back toward some semblance of normal life, some, like Pietrasz, say the time at home — lockdown, dread, fear, isolation — has changed them and made their worries worse or created new ones.
“It’s been a mix of reactions,” says Amy Cirbus, director of clinical content for Talkspace, an online mental health group with nearly 50,000 clients. “Some people are very relieved about going back to normal. Others are struggling.”
Pietrasz says his anxiety is largely unrelated to catching COVID and more about social interactions. Psychologists say fears about leaving home have little to do with reasonable concerns about the virus.
In some cases, psychologists say, the manifestation is subtle, like someone who begins making repeated excuses to avoid meeting up with friends,even within a safe, socially distanced setting or after they’ve been vaccinated.
Some cases are more extreme, says Dr. Arthur Bregman, a psychiatrist who noticed this phenomenon in his Miami practice.
“The people who have the most anxiety disorders in my practice, they are the worst-affected. They can’t even get out,” says Bregman, who has been studying the 1918 influenza pandemic’s psychological impact.
After that lockdown, roughly 40% of the population would be diagnosed with what we now call PTSD, Bregman says. “It took 10 years for the people to get out of this,” he says.
Dr. Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist, says the coronavirus pandemic triggered new trauma for some, especially in the unpredictable early weeks.
According to a survey in February by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of respondents said they felt uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions once the pandemic ends. Vaccination status had little impact on people’s responses, with 48% of vaccinated adults saying they still felt uneasy.
“You’ve been taught for an entire year to distance yourself from people ,and you’ve learned to be afraid of people because they could make you sick or kill you,” Holland says.
Before the pandemic, 17-year-old Erin had lots of close friends but says those interactions slowly waned while on lockdown in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Now, she barely talks to them. The Associated Press is only using her first name because she is a minor.
“A year ago, I went outside hoping I’d run into a friend from school and go on an adventure,” the high school junior, who has been on anxiety medication for several years, recently posted on social media. “Now, I’m terrified to leave the house.”
Nicole Russell became so fearful of leaving her home near Miami that she retreated to her bedroom for days at a time, unable to interact with anyone, including her 11-year-old daughter.
“I would not leave my little corridor for days at a time because I could not deal with the pressures of talking to other people,” says Russell, who left notes to remind herself to shower and brush her teeth. “I wasn’t living — that’s for sure.”
Last Month, Russell even waved off family and friends when they tried to plan something small for her birthday last month.
“We were forced into isolation,” she says, “and now we’ve grown accustomed to it.”
Experts say taking small steps over time is one of the most effective treatments. The more that people go to the store or see friends, the more they’ll discover the forgotten enjoyment of social interactions and learn that much of the world is unchanged. Others might need medication.
Russell has forced herself to take a terrifying trip to the grocery store. She saw people laughing and talking and was inspired.
She started therapy along with an antidepressant. It worked, she says. Within a week, things were far better. Now, “I’m up and moving around, and I want to start catching up with everybody.”