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On Rockies opening weekend in early April, I strolled up to Coors Field full of excitement. I was ready to see my first live sporting event in nearly a year and a half—as well as return to one of my favorite venues in the city.
By the time I got to my seat, however, my eagerness had faded a bit. I had to weave through hundreds of people to get there, and once I sat down, I realized I was sitting pretty close to a lot of other fans. Many of them had their masks off much of the time, enjoying beers and other ballpark fare. I’d gotten my first dose of the Moderna vaccine by that point and knew transmission of COVID-19 was limited in outdoor settings. But I’d also spent the last year mostly isolated and being socialized to avoid people I don’t know.
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I had similar feelings few weeks later on a crowded patio at a South Broadway bar. By that point, I had been fully vaccinated, and a few days earlier Governor Jared Polis said that people who’d reached that threshold no longer had to wear face coverings in most settings. Based on all the available science, being surrounded by dozens of people wasn’t unsafe. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t looking around wondering how many other maskless people on the patio had actually been inoculated, or feeling a little more claustrophobic than I would have 15 months earlier.
I am far from the only person experiencing those feelings. “I think we’ve been conditioned in the past year, that going out is not safe,” says Glenn Most, executive director of the West Pines Behavioral Health Center in Wheat Ridge. “There is this kind of anticipatory fear about returning to public life. I am hearing it from patients and people in the community.”
As a behavioral psychologist, Most counsels patients on ways to break routines and habits that have developed over a long period of time, as well as get over the anxiety associated with changing those patterns. “Same thing is happening with the return to more normal life after COVID,” he says. “We’ve become afraid of certain things and it is going to take some time to counteract that.”
To help, we asked Most to share some of his best advice for people experiencing anxiety about our gradual return to normal.
Pick a reasonable starting point
Most suggests cataloguing some of the things you used to do before the pandemic and choosing ones that sound reasonable—and enjoyable—to return to given the current circumstances. For example, maybe you feel like you won’t have a ton of control over your situation in a movie theater but the idea of a small outdoor patio at a restaurant gives you less anxiety. Start with the situation you are comfortable in and work your way to things that feel more daunting.
Break things down into small steps
When Most works with people that have significant phobias, he asks them to think about the small steps that lead up to the thing they are afraid of—maybe even some they take for granted. If someone is afraid of driving, the process to get to that point includes getting dressed to go out, grabbing your key, and putting the key in the ignition. “If you can just pick up the car key on the first day and then feel that anxiety and let it subside, that’s a good day,” Most says. “Then you try to move onto the next step, the next day.” The same can be applied to whatever you may want to return to now that restrictions are easing and capacity limits are increasing.
You will likely get more comfortable over time
When I attended the Rockies game, my uneasy feelings piqued during the first few innings. But after a bit of time, I began to feel more comfortable. Most said that trajectory is typical for people—and was probably a good thing for me. “If you are in a situation that is anxiety-provoking, try not to leave it,” he says. “Anxiety is on a curve. It increases, increases, increases until it reaches a peak, and physiologically it has to come down. If you are able to stay in that situation while it is coming down, you are going to be able to handle that situation much more in the future.”
Be respectful of how others feel
Most also doesn’t think it is helpful to make others feel bad for how they are going about life in the next few months. “We are only in charge of ourselves,” he says, “and we can only gauge our own levels of what’s safe and not safe. I would really try to withhold judgement of other people. We don’t know how they might have experienced the pandemic.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for support
Many of us will process the anxiety of getting back out there on our own, or with the support of loved ones. But Most says you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from a mental health professional, if you are struggling. “The general rule that I have is that if it is causing an extreme disruption in your life, I recommend people seek help,” he says. “That could come in many different forms. We have a 24-hour statewide crisis line [1-844-439-TALK], there’s support groups, individual treatment.”