Re-Entry After A Pandemic: How to Get Back Out There
I am going to a party today for the first time in over a year. It is a porch party where we will sit spaced out on an outside patio. But still. I will take a shower, put on pants that button, and drive to a friend’s house to interact with people I haven’t shared physical space with in quite some time.
I have been excited about it for days.
But to be honest, I am also a little nervous.
One of the things I have learned about my anxiety is that when something is out of my routine it makes me edgy. The unfamiliar is hard. And right now my familiar routine includes wearing joggers, talking to my pandemic puppies, and being able to mute myself at will in most conversations. Today there will be no mute button on my mouth and no hide video option for my face. And I have already mentioned I will be squeezing into real pants. And a bra.
It is a funny phenomenon that events I have looked forward to for so long are suddenly hard. We had a chance to hear our children’s chorus sing in person a month or so ago. Hearing them sing live is one of the things I have missed the most! The school got permission to hold the concert in a large church so parents could space out. I dressed up and put on my mask and found a great seat in the balcony. And then for some reason, a family sat right behind us. (Did they not see the multiple empty pews?) During the whole concert, I was irritated that strangers were breathing on me. Irritated and worried. I was able to enjoy parts of the concert, but it was also a hard re-entry to a pastime I once loved.
So what do we do in this time when we may be anxious to return to our regularly scheduled lives? How do we get back to the things we have missed for so long?
I am lucky to have a wise husband who works as a therapist. He often talks about using de-sensitization to help people overcome their fears and discomforts. In de-sensitization, you expose yourself to things you are afraid of gradually over time.
Let me use my pandemic puppy as an example.
Our puppy is afraid to ride in the car. Mainly because on trips over 15 minutes (hello Vet and Petsmart) . . . well, she pukes. And no one likes to be carsick, not even puppies. So to help her get over her fear of car rides we are doing exposure therapy.
A couple times a week I take her on a short, easy car ride. Luckily, both our grocery store and post office are just a mile away. After I put my pup on a blanketed front seat (because puke), we roll down the windows and head to our destination. Once we get to the grocery store, I give her a treat. Then I hold her in my lap and let her sniff out the window until the nice instacart person puts our groceries in the trunk. Then we head home. Once she is finished she gets more treats and lots of cuddles and praise.
Once a week we take a medium long trip. Maybe we go to the pharmacy drive-thru or Starbucks. We roll down the window so she can enjoy the air and I praise her at stoplights. Again, I treat her when we get to our destination (did someone say Starbucks whipped cream?) Then when we get home she get to play in the front yard as a special treat.
And if we have to make a longer, harder trip, such as the journey to the vet, we enlist support. Someone holds her in their lap in the front seat to calm and focus her. If she pukes on the trip, we clean up fast and then comfort her. She still did her best.
So what does my puppy have to do with you going back to your previous routines with actual pants on?
Start small and easy.
If sitting through a whole church service makes you feel queasy, meet a friend at church for a chat outside. Or meet a friend at a park near your house for a chat outside. Whatever that doable first step is, take it.
Once you get good at the small steps, start taking medium steps. If a whole grocery trip is still too much, get one item at a smaller store. Then treat yourself. You too can have some Starbucks whipped cream!
And if you need to take a harder step, like going to the doctor or an important appointment that makes you feel nervous, ask for help. Get a friend or family member to drive you. Even if they can’t go inside with you, knowing they are waiting in the car to comfort and cheer you on will make things easier. And if something goes sideways while you are out, don’t beat yourself up. This is hard. You are doing your best. Clean up any messes made and then take comfort measures. Watch a favorite movie or take a warm bath.
Remember, struggling with re-entry is nothing to be ashamed of. It has been a hard year and the collective trauma has taken its toll. Be gentle on yourselves.
That being said, it is important to try to get back to routines you once loved. Agoraphobia is real and hard. No one wants to be stuck in the house forever. If you are feeling afraid to leave the house, there is no judgment. But you may need someone to help you start trying to get out and about again. There is still a beautiful world out there and many things we can begin to safely enjoy. We have lost so much this past year. Don’t let fear rob you of the rest of your life.
For more tips on managing anxiety and dealing with agoraphobia, check out When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm