According to a CDC survey conducted in June 2020, 40 percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. These numbers have skyrocketed during the pandemic. As adults and children make their way back to schools and workplaces, experts warn that we may be facing a new mental health crisis marked by “re-entry anxiety” or “reopening anxiety”— anxiety over resuming previously normal interactions and activities. This could be new anxiety or, if you’re like me, old anxiety that the pandemic has brought back up to the surface. Fortunately, my previous treatment for anxiety has given me some tools to help navigate my re-entry back to a normal way of life.
Anxiety disorders have a broad range of severity and manifestations, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety Disorder, and phobia-related disorders. They can be managed in many different ways, ranging from readjusting thoughts to meditation, and physical activity to medication. In this post, I highlight some of the tools I learned to manage my anxiety, in case you find yourself facing them as you re-enter the workplace.
I first came to understand my mental health issues at my last job. Over the course of several months, I grappled with several things in parallel: my horrible job situation, my physical health, my spiritual health, my sexual health, and multiple other factors, any single one of which would have been challenging to handle on their own.
After several months, my anxiety gave way to severe depression where I struggled to get out of bed. My thoughts started heading towards darker places, and in the moments where I pulled myself out of the quicksand, I recognized that I was in trouble.
I started individual and group therapy, worked with a psychiatrist to find proper medication, and began routines to take better care of myself. As I learned, my spiraling anxious thoughts all had names in the mental health field. I could learn new patterns of thinking with a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through CBT, I learned to recognize these “cognitive distortions.” I realized that many of these thoughts had gotten worse over the previous year, but many had also been there all along. With a combination of medication and therapy, it took a few months before I was in a much better place.
Classic “Cognitive Distortions”
Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking about our experiences that are not accurate and can lead to anxiety and depression. The goal of CBT is to arm patients with the tools they need to recognize these distortions and patterns, and to re-examine thoughts in a more realistic framework.
This doesn’t mean that our thought process suddenly transforms from gloom and doom into rainbows and sunshine. Rather, CBT aims to help patients quickly assess the thoughts that are leading to anxiety, and recognize the reality of the situation.
In my life, one anxious thought that I regularly had was “If I quit my job, I won’t be able to find another position. I’ll let my family down and will destroy my career.” CBT helped me recognize this as a pattern of thought called “catastrophizing” (which seems to be my brain’s favorite). In reality, I don’t have a pattern of job-jumping, have a strong track record of successes that stand out, and would be able to bounce back. So, although it would be difficult, it wouldn’t be catastrophic.
Here are some other common cognitive distortions:
- All-or-nothing: the inability to see shades of grey in a situation, and being able to see only black-or-white, “all-or-nothing.”
- Disqualifying the positive: the inability to see the positive things happening in one’s life or in a given situation.
- Jumping to conclusions: whether we try to predict someone’s reaction or the outcome of a situation, jumping to conclusions is never good. When you do it ALL the time, it can lead to inaction and an inability to get yourself out of a situation that is solvable.
- The Fallacy of Fairness: this cognitive distortion is the inability to accept that life isn’t fair.
- “The Great Reward” fallacy: the thought that the more you sacrifice, the more of yourself that you give, or the more miserable you are, the greater the reward at the end of it.
Battling reopening Anxiety During COVID
Those of us with anxiety have seen it manifest during the pandemic in many different ways. I had a lot of anxiety about friends and relatives that were in high risk jobs or who were not taking proper precautions. I worried about my kid’s social and mental well-being since he was learning virtually.
As I’ve navigated through my anxiety and depression in the workplace during the pandemic, here are some of the tools that have served me best:
- Write it out. My anxiety journal is always in my purse. In it, I write 3 sections: my spiraling thoughts, the mechanism by which I’m distorting reality, and the more realistic scenario. For example, if your thought is “I’m going to get COVID because the person in the cubicle next to me is coughing,” recognize this as a form of catastrophizing, and acknowledge that the reality is that you are (hopefully) vaccinated, that you are (hopefully) wearing a mask, and that these two factors alone mean your individual risk of getting COVID is quite low. Merely recognizing the thought as a distortion of reality helps me immensely to realign my thought process.
- Assess my anxiety on a daily basis. Some days are worse than others, and I adjust my schedule accordingly. For example, assessing my project’s risks may not be a job I can adequately perform when my anxiety is high. On those days, I can blissfully lose myself in the pattern of repetitive lab work.
- Talking with other people about my anxious thoughts helps. A lot. I’m lucky to have the SciMoms to help me process which of my anxious pandemic thoughts are warranted and which are overblown. My spouse and I also talk a lot about our pandemic anxieties.
- Remind myself on a daily basis that I’m lucky. I celebrate every negative COVID test. I remind myself that I’m privileged to have survived this pandemic. And I wear high heels every day as a very small reminder that I’m finally in a job where I can be myself.
- Don’t avoid the things that give me anxiety. In therapy, we learned “avoidance leads to anxiety.” Once I recognize what is giving me anxiety, I often ask a friend or my spouse to accompany me in those situations rather than avoid them. Once our public health officials give us the green-light for in-person shopping or in-person dining, you can bet that I’ll have someone with me.
- Reassess the “shoulds”. Don’t have expectations of what things should be like or how people should behave. After a year of disruption, stress, and new schedules, everyone will be different.
- Plan ahead. If you know that you’ll be in a situation where you might feel anxious, have a plan in place. In our family, we have quick chats to decide whether we should leave or stay. And that includes listening to my son: he’s comfortable with most activities when people are masked. But if there are a lot of unmasked adults present, he’ll express concern. As our community enters this “in-between” phase, managing his concerns will be tricky. Planning ahead will help.
- Recognize that nothing in this pandemic was “fair”. Individuals who were reckless throughout the pandemic may have emerged unscathed, while individuals who didn’t have the privilege of work-from-home or were cautious every day may have suffered greatly through no fault of their own. No awards will be granted for “best obeyer of CDC advice.” No punishment will be meted out to “anti-masker of the year.” There is a great sense of unfairness in this, which can lead to rage and anxiety. I’ve muted or blocked people on social media who make my blood boil and have also reduced contact with people who were careless about the pandemic. Talking about it with others helps. Know that you are not alone in these feelings and keeping them bottled up is not a healthy way of dealing with them.
Offer support to those around you
As we go back to work and school, we all need to acknowledge that everyone will handle this return differently. Some will want to celebrate naked out on the street, while others will be apprehensive and feel overwhelmed. Be patient and understanding with those around you, and remember that some people might turn to you for the support they need to get through this.
Despite the tools I’ve added to my kit over the past few years in helping me manage and cope, there are days that are just too much as our family experiences re-entry: the first day we sent my kid back to in-person learning and the first day he went back to (outdoors) dance classes are two that stand out in particular. On these days, I could only remind myself that I have to be gentle with myself and with others. The only thing that managed to calm me is seeing the joy on my kid’s face at the end of the day as he ripped off his mask to tell me all about his classes or about the kids at recess. Remembering this joy is a tool that I will have available to help keep my anxiety in check for the next time we experience a “first”.
Everyone finds different ways of dealing with mental health struggles. If you find that your anxiety is not letting you function, if it is leading towards depression, or if you cannot control reopening anxiety on your own, then get help. There are many different places to turn to:
- Ask your primary caregiver if there are resources they can recommend in your area.
- Find a therapist on the Psychology Today database.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness has free emergency text, phone, email, and chat that you can contact, particularly if you are facing a crisis.
- Many states offer mental health resources, sometimes especially related to COVID. For example, in California, California Hope is a free online chat that will connect you to resources, particularly surrounding COVID-19. There are similar Mental Health resources at the federal level.