Stressed about being back in crowds as COVID restrictions ease? Experts offer advice

Returning to a normal social life can be stressful as COVID-19 restrictions ease across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that fully vaccinated people can participate in small or large activities indoors or outdoors without wearing a mask or social distancing. Now, businesses like bars and restaurants have started to welcome more customers as more people get vaccinated and feel comfortable returning to some normal activities.

But not everyone is ready to resume their pre-pandemic social life or to be back in crowds. A survey from the American Psychological Association conducted in March found 49% of Americans, regardless of their vaccination status, would feel uneasy returning to “in-person interaction” after the pandemic.

Experts say it’s natural to feel stressed about a return to normal life after more than a year of being told to social distance, avoid crowds and stay home.

“Think about it: We’re over 15 months into this pandemic and over a year into mask-wearing being normal,” Dr. Shilagh Mirgain with UW Health in Wisconsin told WAPT. “We had finally just kind of adjusted to this change in life only to have it shaken up overnight a few weeks ago with the change in guidelines.”

But, experts say, there are things you can do to help make the transition easier.

Don’t rush it

Experts say a gradual return to public spaces and crowds can make the process less stressful.

“It’s not going to go from not being able to touch anyone to having a big party,” Tara Well, associate psychology professor at Columbia University, told Healthline. “It’s something that’s going to happen gradually.”

Sheva Rajaee, a psychotherapist and director of the Center for Anxiety and OCD, told CNBC that starting with small outings you’re more comfortable with, like dining outdoors at a restaurant, and working your way up can be helpful.

Dave Smithson, operations director at Anxiety U.K., also told Verywell Health that easing into social outings is best as a lot of anxiety about being in public can stem from concerns others won’t follow CDC guidelines.

“If you want to go to the pub the week after the restrictions have been lifted, maybe go in the afternoon or the early evening, when it’s a little bit quieter,” he told the outlet. “Ease yourself back in, rather than go rushing in at 10 p.m. at night when everyone’s had a few drinks already and is less inhibited than normal.”

Rajaee told CNBC it’s normal to feel an increase in anxious thoughts when returning to normal activities but that it’s important to remember “these thoughts are not necessarily true.”

Talk to friends or family

Experts tell Verywell Health that it can be helpful to have a companion who can provide “emotional feedback” as you decide how comfortable you are with resuming public activities.

Psychiatrist Arthur Bregman told the outlet that doing so can help people “step out of their heads.”

“(Fear) gets built up in the people’s minds, but it may not be the same in reality,” he said

Ariane Ling, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York, told TODAY it’s important to have conversations with friends and family about what everyone is comfortable with.

“Ask people what they’re comfortable with, and share what you feel comfortable with,” Ling told TODAY. “Try to make it part of the conversation. We’re all trying to reintegrate back together.”

Have a plan

Hannah Weisman, vice president of clinical operations at the virtual group support platform Sesh, told CNBC that writing down your fears helps acknowledge them and turn them into “something you can evaluate and prepare for.”

Ling told TODAY there can be “power” in knowing you can leave a crowd or social setting at any time and that having a plan for doing so can be helpful.

“Play out these scenarios, what things make you socially nervous or insecure,” said Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. “What can you do to install some type of grounding or safety or structure for you? Boundaries and limits are a form of self-care and this is a new environment. We are not returning to the same old place. We’re not virus-free, we may never be. If post-pandemic life requires us to get a little more vigilant and a little more self-directed, that’s OK.”

Weisman said it’s a good idea to have a mantra such as “it’s important to me to connect with friends” or “I’m here to have fun” to repeat to yourself if you start feeling anxious while in a social setting.