Starting this Friday, Chicago and the state of Illinois will fully reopen, although some masking requirements will remain, at least for now.
For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, businesses, including entertainment venues and restaurants, will be able to operate at full capacity. It is a day many people have longed for, but if you’re experiencing anxiety about a return to something like normal, you are not alone.
Experts say so-called “reopening anxiety” is real, widespread and to be expected.
Dr. Aderonke O Bamgbose Pederson, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Medicine, says some anxiety is natural.
Below, a Q&A with O Bamgbose Pederson, edited for length and clarity.
Given that so many people have looked forward to an end to the pandemic for so long, why might reopening and a return to normality be triggering anxiety?
I think the first thing we have to consider is just how long we’ve been in a state of heightened awareness of our environment, of our decisions, in terms of our socialization, but also in terms of our workspaces and where and how we’ve been working. It’s been 15 months of one guideline after the other. It’s been 15 months of trying to pay attention to what’s the next recommendation coming out of the CDC. And we’ve had to readjust our lifestyle.
Some peoples’ livelihoods have been changed. So, even though we’ve all been waiting and bracing for this moment of a return to normal, it’s only natural that our bodies are telling us that this is a lot to take in for many of us. Certainly, for some people it might be a smooth transition, but by and large, for a lot of people it’s going to be a process. And it is important that we take it as a process because we didn’t get to this point over night. We got to this point after 15 long, exhausting, traumatic, grief-inducing months.
What are the issues that are causing people the most stress? A return to in-person work? Travelling on public transport? What are people finding most stressful about the prospect of a return to normality?
There’s certainly an amount of uncertainty around what exactly a return to normal looks like. I think we’ve gotten used to some new routines and so now we have to come up with another set of new routines. After a 15-month period of readjusting and finding new ways to do things, whether it’s your commute to work, whether it’s how you interact with people and how you socialize with people in the workspace, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to just go right back to doing things exactly how we were doing things in 2019.
Many businesses are making accommodations to still consider the fact that while many people are vaccinated, there’s still such apprehension around the fact that COVID-19 is not eliminated it’s just subdued in some ways. And now we can get back to some sense of normalcy, what that means in practice varies in different peoples’ minds. There are some things that are out of our control, and I think that lack of control and feelings of uncertainty … the feeling of being not quite sure what (a return to normal) is going to look like for me and my family, for my kids.
We don’t have a playbook telling us this is exactly what the next few months are going to look like. It seems to me it is only natural that there would be some level of anxiety when there is some uncertainty and we don’t know exactly what things are going to look like, even though we know that with the vaccine things are going to be a lot better.
What are some of the ways stress impacts the body? What symptoms might people be feeling? Can, for example, emotional and physical fatigue be a sign of stress?
For anxiety, sometimes the symptoms can be physical. People might have GI or abdominal discomfort, stomach upset, headaches, and just a sense of feeling like your thoughts are circling. You’re worrying a lot more. There might be a heightened awareness that you might experience where you are just more aware of your environment and what’s going on around you and you are not as relaxed. There might be a sense of restlessness. All of those tend to be symptoms of anxiety in general.
Any of these feelings, both physical and psychological can be present in our bodies. And even when we are not conscious of our anxiety, some of the things like fatigue or restlessness, and feeling like you’re just not relaxed in spaces and situations where normally you would be relaxed could be signs of anxiety related to the pandemic.
The pandemic has not impacted everyone equally. We know there have been disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Is that also showing up now in terms of reopening anxiety as well or more broadly in terms of the level of stress people in those communities are experiencing?
With any kind of trauma people are going to respond differently to it, even if there is the same trauma. When it comes to this past year and the dual pandemic – the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of racism and the social awareness that has come with that and hopefully stays with us – certainly Black and brown communities bore the brunt of the impact and experienced a disproportionate impact because of COVID-19.
As we are picking up the pieces of the society, it is important to acknowledge CDC research that shows people from Black and brown communities were three to four times more likely to be hospitalized and were twice as likely in many cases to die from COVID-19. It goes without question that as we are emerging from the pandemic that we are taking that data and we are considering that in how we are moving forward.
I don’t have answers for what exactly that will look like for each community. We’re not just emerging from a pandemic unscathed, untouched. We are emerging from it and going into what I would consider the recovery of process, and so we do have to be paying attention to the needs of disadvantaged communities because of the impact, in terms of health care directly, but also in terms of the economic impact on Black and brown communities.
What would you recommend to people to help them cope with their anxiety? When might someone need to seek professional help?
It’s important to think of anxiety, stress, feeling more fatigued than normal on a spectrum, just like we think of our physical health. There are times when you may have a small cold, but when it becomes a fever and it’s affecting your ability to function then you certainly need to go in and get help. I think it’s very similar to apply that idea to your mental health.
When mental health concerns like anxiety or depression or emotional distress get to a point where you notice it affecting your day-to-day life, that’s the time to get help. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get help sooner because we want to be preventative in our approach.
How would you recommend employers deal with workers who might be hesitant to return to in-person work? What’s the best way for them to look after their employees?
I think having a culture where people feel safe talking about their emotional well-being and their psychological well-being. If someone said, “I can’t do something because I recently had a heart attack, or I can’t do something because I struggle with diabetes, I can’t take part in this activity for this or that reason,” it’s OK to respond kindly to that and accommodate.
But I think because of the stigma around mental health, we are a lot more hesitant when our employees or our colleagues are sort of sounding the alarm by saying this is going to be very distressful for me. For employers and organizations, I think it is important to develop a culture where people don’t wait until things are at the extreme to voice their concern. And to not shame people or make them feel that they are expressing a weakness, but in many ways they are expressing a strength by coming forward and sharing something that might not be the most popular thing to share.
Almost no one has been untouched by the pandemic and the stresses and anxiety it has induced. Could one of the good things that may potentially emerge from the pandemic is a heightened awareness of mental health issues and greater empathy and understanding for people who may be struggling with issues of mental health? Could this help break down some of the stigmas that have for so long surrounded mental health?
I hope so. I think that sometimes our memory is not great. The question then is a year from now, five years from now, do we hold on to that empathy? At the start of the pandemic there were stories around people who have social anxiety and how the pandemic itself brought some level of comfort for some people.
When it comes to mental health care in general, certainly there have been a lot more conversations, which is great and has been a positive thing because that is the only way moving forward that we can recover well as a community and as a society. I hope that it continues to be at the forefront of our minds because I don’t see how we can recover well as a society (without that).
When people go through a trauma, whether at the community level or at the individual level, when we ignore it, when we try to cover it up, and when we don’t attend to it and address it, it comes out in other forms: increased risk of depression, increased risk of anxiety and burnout. I think it is a positive that we are talking about mental health. But I think it is even more important that we continue to have our focus on our psychological well-being as we move forward.