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By Liora Engel-Smith
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Pat Szafranski chose her restaurants the way most of us would: by looking at the menu. In recent months, she’s developed a new criteria, and it has nothing to do with food. The Greensboro resident judges a restaurant by its ventilation.
“If we have to eat inside, it would be at a place with really high ceilings, it would have good ventilation,” she said about eating out with her husband. “I would ask them to put me in a corner somewhere out of the way.”
Szafranski is fully vaccinated, and per state and CDC guidelines, restaurants are once again safe for her. But the 69-year-old is wary, and not only about eating out. The prospect of running errands or even stepping foot at a potentially crowded grocery store remains a scary one.
“I feel like there’s a bunch of us that are semi-agoraphobic because we’re not used to getting out,” she said.
She’s not far off. Roughly a third of adults in North Carolina reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2020, up from 19 percent in 2017-19, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
“The main thing that people want to know is, is it really safe?” said Rocky Mount counselor Keisha Ward. “They have anxiety about going back out there when at this point it feels like the unknown.”
Ward, who specializes in treating trauma, said some of her clients struggled to return to pre-pandemic routines, even with full immunization, masking and copious amounts of hand sanitizer. Though perhaps unexpected to some, that sense of unease is normal, and in most cases, will dissipate over time, Ward added.
“You had something happen that at first felt normal because it seemed like a cold or the flu,” she said of the pandemic. “And then it just kept going.”
Szafranski wouldn’t have thought twice about a quick trip to the beauty supply store before the pandemic. Recently, however, that errand had morphed into an outing that required some planning. A self-proclaimed Type A, Szafranski finds that her energy levels are lower now, in part because a COVID infection during the holiday season left her with asthma and heart issues.
With summer celebrations just around the corner, Szafranski is allowing herself to think of fireworks aboard the boat she and her husband own in Lake Lure, a Rutherford County town. Szafranski likely won’t get to relive that experience this year, but she does plan to get out of the house. It’ll be the beginning of a period of family gatherings, and likely, face masks.
“I’m going to continue to be careful,” she said. “I can’t afford to get COVID again.”
Szafranski’s chances of catching the infection again are vanishingly small, experts say. The vaccines seem to be holding against coronavirus mutations that have cropped up across the country and the world. And even if the vaccine’s efficacy decreases, creating a new vaccine won’t be as difficult as it was the first time, said David Priest, Novant Health’s chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.
Information alone likely won’t solve our collective sense of uneasiness, Ward said, but there are other things we can do to ease our way into normalcy.
A gradual transition
Ward advises anyone who feels leary about being in public to decide ahead of time what activities they want to take part in. Running errands on the weekend or grabbing lunch with a friend may feel safer than a large wedding or concert, for example. And that’s OK so long as clients have some ways to engage meaningfully with their community.
“I tell people to follow their peace,” she said. “If you’re having a gathering and you don’t feel at peace about going, don’t go.”
If anxiety about the pandemic hampers day-to-day activities that clients want to return to, Ward recommends taking it slow, perhaps by setting a goal to go to the grocery store for one or two items. Skills such as deep breathing and monitoring inner dialogue can help clients ride out the negative feelings that may crop up during the post-pandemic experience.
“If all you do is just make it to your car,” she said. “And the next time you can get out and be in front of the store, that’s OK. But each time, breathe through that moment to calm yourself down.”
The process may take a few weeks or even a few months in some cases, but most clients are able to overcome their anxiety. It’s a process of reclaiming life outing by outing, she added.
Szafranski, for her part, is optimistic about her own reclamation process.
“Little by little,” she said. “We will become more acclimated.”
Working through the emotional ups and downs of the ‘new normal.’
Retired Southern Pines therapist Christine Ganis has some tips for coping with anxiety about going out:
- Take your time: Don’t rush the reacclimation process. Set small, achievable goals that won’t overwhelm you.
- Talk to friends and family: Acknowledging the uneasy feelings to a confidant or a trusted family member can help you connect. The support you receive may make the transition easier. “Reach out [to friends and family] and say, ‘hey, are you getting rapid heartbeats when you’re getting ready to get out of the car?’ Then you begin to notice [your feelings] out loud.”
- Challenge negative thoughts: If you find that you stay home even when you want to go out, ask yourself why. You may have talked yourself out of an activity. “You could keep thinking these paralyzing thoughts, or you could shift to something else. You might shift to positive thoughts. [For example,] ‘wait a minute, I’m talking myself out of something I wanted to do.’” Shifting your thoughts may ease the anxiety.
- Do it anyway: If you find that you are reluctant to attend events even with precautions, such as social distancing, challenge yourself to go even if you feel anxious. “Anxiety makes us think of the what if’s, but chances are good that 90 percent of the things you say ‘what if’ about never happened,” she said. “Remind yourself that you’re anxious and that it’s just a thought.”