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4/12/21 blog post

why am I feeling anxious about going back to normal after the pandemic?

When the pandemic began last spring, there was certainly a lot of anxiety as we navigated social distancing, mask-wearing, virtual learning and working from home. Now, a year later, with the introduction of tested and approved vaccines, we have started to reopen and “return to normal.” But, with normalcy comes a new sense of anxiety for some people.

We sat down with psychologist, Sandra Todd, Psy.D., ABPP, to talk about why some individuals may be feeling anxious as the pandemic winds down and the world starts opening back up.

Why are some people feeling anxious about returning to “normal?”  
Human beings are wired to be attuned to unfamiliar situations. This is adaptive and helps alert us to potential dangers in our environments. The fewer situations to which we are exposed, the more situations trigger our internal "danger alert" system. Some individuals' alert systems are more sensitive than others and are more easily triggered by unfamiliar, but non-dangerous situations. We call this reaction, "anxiety." Those of us who have this tendency, may be more likely to feel anxious as our experiences begin to expand beyond those few situations that have become familiar during the pandemic restrictions.

How can I help my child who is feeling anxious about returning to in-person school?
The best way to get over anxiety is for us to "face our fears." Although this will likely require some level of discomfort, it does not need to be an overwhelming experience. 

Make a list of the situations that spark anxiety in your child. Then, start at the least anxiety-provoking situations and gradually start to include those situations in your child's life. Anxiety is a physiological "sprint." Humans, when exposed to non-dangerous, but anxiety-provoking situations, naturally start to relax if they remain in the situation for 30 to 45 minutes or if they are exposed to the situation very frequently.  For example, if your child fears going back to in-person school, you can first take them to the school grounds and have them play on the playground for 30 to 45 minutes. Once this is easy for your child, perhaps, you can arrange for the child to go inside the school this summer when few people are there.  They can take favorite toys with them and play with them in the hall or in the room that will likely be their classroom.  Next, they can meet their teacher. Gradually, facilitate your child's "practicing being brave" sessions until they closely resemble what they will be experiencing in real life next fall.   

What are some ways my family can reopen our social circle?
We recommend following the CDC guidelines to help ensure safe interactions for your family. As guidelines allow, help your child to first re-connect with people with whom they are familiar. Children often feel safest in their own homes. Therefore, hosting play dates in your home or in locations your child enjoys would be a great start.

What should I do if my family and/or child has really thrived in isolation?
As mentioned above, some of us with more sensitive "danger alert" systems may have thrived under COVID restrictions. However, just because our children like something, does not mean that too much of it is good for them. Many of our children would prefer candy to healthy foods. But, despite our children's protests, we would not allow them to eat a solid diet of sweets because it would not good for their health. As parents we are charged to help equip our children to function well in the variety of environments that they are likely to encounter in their lives. And, just like helping them expand their dietary repertoire by exposing them to different foods to promote physical health, we can help them expand their behavioral repertoire by expanding their social circles to promote social health. 

Research says that a child needs to be exposed to a new food 20 times before they will say that they like it. Having the same diligence with frequently exposing your child to age-appropriate, non-dangerous situations will yield these same dividends over time. Your child may still have her or his preferences, but the more they are exposed to a situation, the more likely they will tolerate it well, or even like it.

We love our children. Seeing them in distress, distresses us. But, if we can keep in mind that we are not exposing our children to real danger, but are rather helping them increase their familiarity with age-appropriate situations, we'll be better able to tolerate their temporary discomfort in the service of their long-term functioning.

sandra todd
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Sandra L. Todd, Psy.D., ABPP

behavioral health, psychology
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