How you and your family can cope with post-COVID anxiety

Overcoming anxiety can be hard, regardless of age.
You can take your time removing your mask. Anna Shvets / Pexels

After the long shutdown due to the covid pandemic, the US is slowly reopening. After more than 18 months of confinement, vaccines are making it possible for authorities to finally lift the rules we’ve grown accustomed to. 

As excited as we all may be to get back to normal, the changing or lifting restrictions come with a certain amount of anxiety. 

The first time I walked into a grocery store maskless after Massachusetts stopped requiring people to wear face coverings indoors, I had a pit in my stomach waiting for someone to yell at me. There are also people who have a hard time feeling safe without a mask on, or comfortable sharing a reduced space with others, even if they’re fully vaccinated. 

It’s going to be a process for some of us. Fortunately, we can take steps to help ourselves and our families work through those feelings and get back to the lives that we want to live. 

Anxiety is natural and valid

Some level of anxiety is a common and expected response to any change in the world around us, says Nicole Beurkens, a licensed child psychologist in Caledonia, Michigan.

“Now we’re making a change again, and it’s a new pattern, unfamiliar, and it raises our stress and anxiety levels,” she says.  

[Related: COVID-19 survivors may have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and neurological disorders]

The uncertainty we felt when the pandemic required that we stay home, wear masks and social distance, is peeking its ugly face now that a new reality is upon us. But just as we were able to adjust to those mandates, our brains will settle into new patterns and reacclimate—it just takes a little time.  

And while some anxiety is natural, if at any point it becomes overwhelming and it significantly interferes with you or your kids’ daily lives, Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, suggests seeking professional help or utilizing community resources such as mental health community centers, outpatient clinics, and social services agencies. 

Don’t try to do too much

Everyone has their own comfort level with re-entering society. It’s ok if you prefer a slow pace, but keep in mind that avoiding these potentially uncomfortable situations altogether doesn’t help, and only serves to generate more anxiety. 

Michael Ceely, a licensed family therapist in San Francisco, California, is a big advocate of taking baby steps as we emerge from our bubbles. Rather than having a big family barbecue or a crowded concert as your first outing post lockdown, he recommends taking a walk with a friend, or getting coffee in an outdoor cafe. The idea is to find activities that push you to get out into the world, but won’t completely overwhelm you. 

Beurkens adds that taking it slow and incrementally putting yourself out there is particularly important for children. In the fall, a lot of kids will be going back to school fully in-person, in some places likely without masks or other protective measures in place. If being in crowded hallways will be their first exposure to other people after all this time, they may struggle. 

It’s crucial to help kids work those coping muscles again. Parents should be gentle, but also persistent about getting the younglings back out into the world. 

Communication is key

Having clear, direct conversations is also important. Within your family, talk about the things that you are afraid of and the sources of your anxiety. Ask your children questions about how they’re feeling, what types of activities they’re OK with doing, and with whom. 

“Don’t just hope that everyone is going to be OK. You need to have the difficult conversations” Ceely says. 

He also stresses that these interactions should be about listening. “We are warming them back up to getting back out into the world,” he says. Conversations that validate concerns can help ease some of the anxiety, but too much pressure can increase it. 

[Related: What mental health professionals have learned six months into pandemic care]

It’s also important not to bury those anxious feelings, says Claudia Finkelstein, associate professor of family medicine at Michigan State University. Instead, make the effort to identify, name, and own your emotions and concerns. There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed during stressful times. 

These conversations can also be lessons in resilience, adds Beurkens. If your kids are concerned, remind them about other challenges they’ve overcome in their lives. 

“Kids need to understand that it’s OK to have these feelings,” she says. “Acknowledge and empathize, and express your confidence in their ability to navigate it.” 

One way to help them build that confidence is to preview uncomfortable activities with them. Talk through how they may feel and present them strategies they can use to navigate those feelings. Also discuss what to do in case the situation does get overwhelming. Identify locations they can go to get away from people and have some time to themselves, and come up with a plan for how to make an easy exit as a family if the situation is too much. 

Conversations aren’t just limited to direct family. It’s also a good idea to touch base with the comfort levels of your kids’ friends’ parents, and other people coming into close contact with your children.

“Go into that conversation without expectations or solutions, and simply share your concerns and ask questions,” Ceely says. 

Talk through who is vaccinated or not, whether masks are important to you, and whether you want to prioritize indoor or outdoor activities. Remember that you don’t have to decide anything right away, but simply having the conversation will help to ease everyone’s anxiety.

Managing anxiety in the moment

For me, it was playing mini golf with my family on a crowded evening, maskless. Eventually it’ll happen to you too, and you will be in a situation that makes you uncomfortable. 

When those inevitable moments happen, Claudia Finkelstein recommends the power of the 4-4-8 breathing technique—breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and then breathe out for eight seconds. 

[Related: The best apps for dealing with anxiety]

Breathing exercises like this help you reset your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s “rest and digest” processes. When these processes are in control, it reduces our physiological stress response, and we calm down and relax. 

“Where your body goes, your brain follows,” Finkelstein says. “If you can force your body to calm down, your mind will calm down as well.”

She also recommends focusing on the things that you can control. We can’t control whether other people are following local guidelines, decide to get vaccinated, or subscribe to the misinformation about COVID-19. But you can control your own emotional state, your response to the mandates, and the specific actions you can take in the face of anxiety and adversity.

Ceely agrees. Even as the US reopens, there’s so much uncertainty that dwelling on the future or what others are doing doesn’t help you or your family. His advice is simple: “Control what you can control with the information that you have.”