How to support people feeling anxious as pandemic restrictions lift
The pandemic may be receding, but for some, it’s still scary out there.
As more people get vaccinated and guidelines loosen, the return to life as we knew it before the COVID-19 health crisis is finally in sight. But for some of us, that’s a frightening thought.
Studies show mass traumatic events have effects that linger well after they end. The pandemic is no exception. A study of US adults conducted in June 2020 found a three-fold increase in anxiety and depression symptoms, whereas an April 2021 survey found that 19 percent of respondents intended to continue masking regardless of guidance, while another survey found that only 10 percent of employees wanted to come back to the office full time.
Even if you can’t relate, chances are someone around you still feels unprepared to go back to normal. Learning how to help them feel better in all this uncertainty can make this transition easier on everyone.
Not all anxiety is bad, says Karthik Gunnia, a clinical psychologist and a visiting assistant professor in counseling psychology at New York University.
“Anxiety can be a signal that something is important to you, and if you’re trying to get rid of anxiety entirely, dismissing or minimizing it can be unhelpful,” he says.
Fear and anxiety evolved as a way to draw attention to potentially dangerous situations, but it becomes a disorder when it begins disrupting your day-to-day life. Getting anxious when you get an alert about suspicious usage on your debit card is healthy and normal. Feeling dread when a party invitation shows up in your inbox is a different thing.
Part of the problem is that anxiety can be self-reinforcing. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, canceling party plans will give you immediate relief. But over time, that creates a habit of avoidance that prevents you from learning to manage anxiety and live your life in a healthier way.
And it’s not only canceling plans at the last minute. Having a little too much to drink at gatherings is also a type of avoidance, as is making an appearance early on and leaving when the room begins to fill up, or spending the entire time on your phone.
Like any skill, managing anxiety takes practice, and when you don’t do it as much, it becomes harder. Gunnia notes that no matter how extroverted you are or how much you’ve missed hugs, social interaction will take more work as we return to the social sphere.
“There’s going to be an adjustment phase, and people with preexisting mental health difficulties may have more trouble,” he says.
Being open and patient with anyone struggling with anxiety can definitely ease their transition.
How to help
There’s no simple fix that will cure anxiety. Managing this condition is a process we can help others with, provided we understand our limits.
Permission will be key
“In some of my patients, their anxiety comes from fearing people can see that they’re anxious. So asking if they’re OK at the moment might actually spike their anxiety,” says Gunnia.
Instead, asking somebody how they’ve been and letting them talk is the best option. This is especially true if you haven’t seen them for a while.
“Letting the person take the lead in what is and is not helpful for them can allow people to feel more in control of the situation, which may help decrease their anxiety about opening up,” says Kelly Heft, a licensed mental health counselor.
Be open and non-judgmental
You may think you know what a person is going through. But you have to keep in mind that you may not know the whole story, or that what may not look like a big deal from the outside might still cause a lot of distress for someone else.
“People’s minds and bodies respond differently to input, and it’s not a matter of ‘strength’ or ‘weakness,’” Gunnia says. “There are factors from your upbringing that may impact how you perceive new input and how your body processes your autonomic responses.”
You cannot know exactly what someone else has dealt with, so acknowledging what they went through will do more than trying to point out that it isn’t so bad. Try using phrases like “I can see how that must have been hard for you” or “Is there something I can do to help?”.
Avoid giving advice or looking for solutions—unless the person specifically asks for them
Anxiety manifests in a lot of different ways, and everyone’s anxiety is different. This means that there’s no one solution, so offering one can feel minimizing or dismissive toward the feelings and experiences of a person suffering from this condition.
Instead, ask what they might need from you, or if they want to discuss what’s worked for you in similar situations.
Above all, we’ll need to be patient with each other, and accept that people have changed in the wake of the pandemic. We’re going to have to get to know each other and ourselves again, and that’s going to be a process for all of us.