How Do We Manage “Re-Entry Anxiety?”
How it Developed and Tips on How to Reduce It
By Shannan Blum, LMFT, CCATP-CA
It’s everywhere right now. Can y’all feel it? Kids are hummin’ with it, Moms and Dads are feelin’ it, too. Employers are not exempt, either! It’s the mix and presence of both hopeful anticipation for some, heavy dread for others, and straight up refusal for more than just a few. Which is it for you and how do you notice yourself managing that? I’ll identify some interesting patterns and (hopefully) some coping skills to help you along the way.
I found a fascinating thing happening about four-to-six weeks into the pandemic while I was managing an Intensive Outpatient clinic for depression and anxiety. Many parents of teens reported, “They feel so much better!” or, the teens themselves stated, “My anxiety has really gone down lately, I don’t think I have anxiety anymore!” I was concerned.
While I validated that, in fact, their anxiety did seem to have reduced – I didn’t think it was for the reasons they thought. I believed the reason their anxiety levels had reduced wasn’t because they’d been applying their skills regularly (because they hadn’t). It also was not because they were routinely having new anxiety-provoking experiences to challenge themselves and were responding to them with greater adaptability (because they weren’t). Nope.
I saw this simply as a stimulus/response issue. From a behavioral modification standpoint… they’d experienced a reduction of anxiety response due to the absence or avoidance of any or all their ‘usual’ anxiety-producing stimuli. No stressful school, no interactions with annoying people, everyone on lockdown; the first couple of weeks felt a bit like a break from the ‘normal’ stressors. There simply was NO consistent stimuli for the anxiety response to happen. From a behavioral standpoint – it was fairly straightforward.
A lot of the teens I was working with were also having unlimited use of their devices when not using them for school. Parents expressed knowing this wasn’t healthy, yet also felt they had limited options for either keeping kids occupied or entertained. Hours of scrolling social media, curating & editing TikToks, Snaps and Vids through editing apps and filters, movie streaming on Disney+, seasons of binge-watching on Netflix or Hulu. The opportunities appeared endless and teens were simmering in it. Altered sleep routines also complicated emotions and emotional functioning among both teens and adults.
The outcome is that kids were ‘perceiving’ they were connected, and having a lot of unstructured or unaccounted-for-time once school was done. Since they were able to finish school (in most cases) in less time than usual – and many couldn’t work … some anxiety appeared to reduce. I think what was actually occurring is that the anxiety simply ‘went dormant’.
In addition, research has shown when our connections are electronic/social media connections, or gaming pods/chats, these connections are not as emotionally satisfying as our in-person connections. With fewer limits, reduced movement and limited in-person school or social activities, our teens became more comfortable inside their homes. And inside their homes – for many – meant inside their bedroom. Isolating and on devices – all the while, the anxiety remained ‘there’ but not ‘activated.’ (This is NOT addressing very valid concerns of domestic violence, which increased during COVID, and the constant hypervigilance and anxiety that would be present by being at home.)
So what does this mean for our teens (or ourselves?) heading back to school? What might this mean for adults as well who are required to head back to the office? Why might it be MORE challenging now to head into more social contact when it’s what we’ve all wanted for so long? Because the longer those conditions existed; the longer any of us were ungoverned regarding device usage, or unscheduled re: sleep and activity routines, the easier it became to disconnect from the previous levels of anxiety brought on by face-to-face interactions and regular out-of-the-home activities.
For teens, the more they are able to hide away in a bedroom on their private device – the more they disconnect from their true self and have a greater investment in a present-self. They had more time and opportunity to create the facade and present the mask to their circles. Or at the very least, not feel challenged by nervous worry or anxiety-provoking experiences. At the return to normal life, there will be a reckoning. Now, some are likely considering the inconsistency between their inside experience and their outside presentation. This is why there may likely be greater anxiety at returning to face-to-face now. While I am mostly addressing teens in this paragraph, the same can hold true for adults who have high degrees of social anxiety.
This can be especially true now that we are seeing a fourth surge in COVID cases and deaths associated with the Delta variant. For many -who haven’t had consistent, in-person contact with teachers, peers or coaches, etc. for almost a year now, this surge might be increasing your already approaching anxiety. You may feel entirely overwhelmed at the prospect of returning to those experiences and a situation that feels out of your control. Suddenly, working in sweats & having snacks in your own kitchen has enormous appeal and the idea of interaction with (what we might perceive to be) annoying teachers, peers, bosses doesn’t sound like anyone’s cup-of-tea!
The difference for someone who already experiences Social Anxiety symptoms (excessive fear in social situations about what others think or fears of embarrassment and rejection) – is that since they haven’t been practicing their skills, they are now feeling the fears, worries and intrusive thoughts full-force. The avoidance through the past year has provided an environment for the anxiety thoughts/fears to quietly strengthen. Now, all of anxiety’s demands about Certainty and Comfort are rushing to the forefront of your mind via a variety of the age-old, “What if…” questions, ultimately landing on, “What if I can’t handle it?”
If you’re feeling these feelings, or if you notice your teen or other loved one is experiencing these challenges, here are some guides for managing the anxiety crunch as school and/or work resumes:
- Cultivate “acceptance” that anxiety will show up.
- Understand that anxiety LOVES to be super serious, so use humor to lighten things up.
- Learn skills with a trusted adult or professional about how to ‘go on the offense’, talking back to or against your most ‘bullying’ anxiety-based thoughts.
- Use less permanent language, instead of “I am so anxious, just like always!” try “I feel anxiety heading back to school, which is normal, and I haven’t always felt this way. I can use different skills now.”
- Increase some routine-setting into the schedule about a week BEFORE school begins to spread out the adjustment period rather than having a ‘shock to the system.’
- Increase creative expression of anxiety: draw pictures about how the anxiety feels, write stories about it, act out role-plays or use Legos to portray ‘telling anxiety off’
- Create a “Win Wall” somewhere in the home – Post-It notes identifying ‘wins’ of challenging anxiety experiences, using new coping skills, reaching out for supports, etc. Family members can post about themselves or each other!
- Recognize urges or patterns of procrastination and discuss the feelings you are wanting to avoid. Procrastination is an emotion regulation/distress tolerance issue – not a time management one. Take time to write out the feelings, discuss them with a friend/parent or therapist and problem solve for healthy coping and management of the feelings in order to tackle the task. “What do I want to avoid, resist or ignore?” is a very helpful journaling question for this.
This is a challenging period in history right now. All of us have opportunities to check-in with ourselves, friends and loved ones to healthily manage our uncomfortable feelings. The more we do this, the easier and more natural it becomes. The easier it becomes, the more likely we are to continue it and our ‘healthy self’ gets stronger rather than the anxiety.
These are skills that not only create positive outcomes with reducing anxiety, but they help in developing resilience… and who doesn’t want a little cup o’ resilience right about now? If you are struggling with high levels of anxiety, give us a call at 281-210-6677 to schedule an intake!