On the last day of May — Mental Health Awareness month — Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 pandemic mitigation orders related to gatherings, restaurants and other businesses are set to be lifted. On Thursday, the CDC eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, allowing them to go maskless outdoors, even in crowds, and in most indoor settings. For many, it’s a welcome sign of better days ahead. For some, it’s a trigger for a dreadful wave of anxiety. For many others, it’s a little bit of both of those feelings. For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work or attend school remotely — and while the situation has come with its own set of challenges, it’s been a relief for people who deal with social anxiety. It’s also important to acknowledge that many essential front-line workers haven’t been able to work remotely and have had to deal with feelings of anxiety throughout the pandemic with little respite.
Though social interactions — and the lack of them — during the quarantine and lockdown period could be frustrating for some people, some introverts found themselves thriving. For many, the lockdowns offered a sense of control, routine and comfort from the pressures of in-person interactions.
Even for folks who are itching to get back to a packed social schedule may feel overwhelmed when they return to a loud party, crowded bar or other gathering.
Here, some local mental health specialists offer some ways to deal with the feelings of anxiety and depression as life inches toward a semblance of normalcy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone — and it seems as if anxiety and stress are one of the silent symptoms.
“There’s a whole range of experiences that people have had from folks that have had to keep on working — those essential workers — to people who have shifted to working remotely from home,” says Dr. Tom Crotty, a licensed psychologist with WellSpan Philhaven. “I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for those within our health care system who are going to work every day. It’s just heroic in many ways. And being home, with work adjustments, child care, loss of relationships or connections, that hasn’t been a picnic either. I think it’s been hard on everybody.”
Navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic has turned daily life into a series of stressful situations.
“In some ways, because we’ve been taken out of our automatic routines, we’re having to think about what we do,” Crotty says. “Masks. Going out. Contact with people. We’re having to think about things we’ve never had to before, and yes, that’s stressful”
Even for people that feel ready to go back to in-person social activities and gatherings, there can be mixed feelings. And for those that already deal with social anxiety the notion of gathering can be more challenging.
“I think the complication and the challenge for people with social anxiety — and all of us really — is that we’re having to tolerate a level of risk that we didn’t before back when things were ‘normal,’ ” Crotty says.
Life is different
Crotty says individuals with social anxiety may experience heightened feelings of insecurity about going out socially or returning to the workplace. For Crotty, the first step is accepting that life is different. Then, says Crotty, identifying how we want to live our lives and our values can provide a blueprint on how to move into this uncertain situation. Arming yourself with trustworthy information regarding COVID-19 safety, but paradoxically not overwhelming or bombarding yourself with news and social media, are also ways Crotty suggested managing anxiety.
“There’s a certain level of acceptance and not expecting life to be the way it used to be,” Crotty says. ”It’s important to remember what sustains us and what nourishes us — whether its friends, spiritual beliefs or recreation — as we transition back.”
Crotty says people can start by answering a few simple questions.
“When I work with folks who have social anxiety, I ask them: ‘Why do you want to go out? Why do you want to be with people?’ ” Crotty says. “Even with that anxiety, there are motivating values that get them to accept, and work through some discomfort.”
And although it may sound cliché, taking things step by step is key when navigating a major transition such as this.
“I think a biggie that my clients and I talk about is ‘one day at a time,’ ” Crotty says. “I think we adjust better when we stay mindful and really pay attention to what our needs are every day.”
The organizers of Safe Communities — a local organization that specializes in working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse — applied their knowledge of dealing with trauma to create a workshop on reopening anxiety. The series of three workshops began on May 11.
Neeta Dedhia, Safe Communities’ office manager and group facilitator, is leading the workshops. Dedhia is a Lancaster health professional specializing in homeopathy and alternative medicine and previously worked with teachers in New York City to cope with post-traumatic stress after 9/11.
“The goal (of the workshop) is to be able to understand what triggers their trauma, face their own anxiety and reduce stress,” Dedhia says. “The everyday stress in life doesn’t really go away. There will be other things that trigger the anxiety and the stress, so the goal is to develop that resilience in yourself. The biggest benefit will be to people who had social anxiety before the pandemic.”
With restrictions being lifted, some people may feel a loss of control in social situations. To manage this, Dedhia encourages everyone to set personal boundaries, ease into social activities and continue to wear masks.
“This is the way to give someone a sense of control and protection,” Dedhia says. “Don’t start everything back up at once. Start with one or two activities and build your comfort level by slowly going outside and being around people. Things will change. The pandemic will end.”
In, the end, it’s all about what feels comfortable. And sometimes, that might be declining an invite to a gathering. Dedhia says it’s OK to set that boundary.
“It’s OK to say no (to something) if it’s overwhelming or if you feel like you can’t handle it,” Dedhia says. “And give a reason why. That’s what I tell everyone — say no and give a reason why you can’t do it. Most of the time when you say no and give the reason behind it, the other person will listen and understand.”
A sense of hope
Reentering life, socially or in the workplace, will require some recalibration and may be difficult, but mental health professionals feel the best way is to work through your feelings. And there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think that any therapist or psychologist worth their salt would agree with the statement that within any crises are opportunities for change,” Crotty says. “It creates opportunities for us to rethink some things that we did before that maybe weren’t necessary or didn’t really have value. We have been reminded, I think, in the past several months about what’s really important in our lives. I feel a sense of hope.”