Why We’re Afraid to Get Back to Normal and What We Can Do About It

July 9, 2020

After months of quarantining and social distancing because of the pandemic, many parts of the world are starting to open up again. Shops and restaurants are letting people back inside, little by little. Many events are still on hold, but smaller gatherings are starting to happen. Employers are asking some staff to come back to the office, though many will keep working from home.

Although the return to “normal” will be slow, it may still be too fast for some people. Fears caused by the COVID-19 crisis will remain. For many, those fears could be unbearable.

“Some are afraid of either contracting the virus themselves or inadvertently spreading the virus to others. Others have developed feelings of anxiety about leaving the house even though they do not endorse such fears,” said McLean’s Jason Krompinger, PhD. “This speaks to how powerfully our behavior can influence our thoughts and feelings.”

Krompinger, the director of psychological services and clinical research at McLean’s OCD Institute, stated that anxiety about returning to normal is not surprising. “Even if a person has not been very afraid of coronavirus, they have effectively ‘acted’ fearful by following lockdown orders,” he said. “So, it is not unusual for the body’s threat detection system to activate when heading back out of our homes.”

Illustration of people in masks
Back to normal means something different to each individual and their family, and each will take a different approach to dealing with risks and fears

These fears can vary by person. Some symptoms may appear as low-level physiological discomfort, such as an increase in heart rate or respiration. For others, they could have panic attacks or experience a racing heart, heavy breathing, or fears of losing control or dying.

“Fortunately, these experiences—while uncomfortable—are not dangerous,” said Krompinger. “They will fade over time as more people go about their lives according to our new normal.”

The slow, phased approach to normalcy will help some who are feeling fearful. Krompinger pointed out that exposure therapy is the gold standard for treating individuals with OCD and anxiety disorders. “Exposure therapy is often done in steps where the therapist has the patient start by facing lower-level fears, gradually ramping up to more difficult tasks,” he said. “This is typically done as a means to help improve patient buy-in and create success experiences.” States that are opening up in phases are doing so in a similar format by starting with smaller-scale operations and gradually ramping up as cases lower.

Still, Krompinger cautioned that a staged approach to treatment may not be equally useful to everyone. “For some, the more difficult tasks might be the ones allowed in early stages, while the easier ones will be allowed in later stages,” he stated. “For example, the idea of someone in prolonged close physical contact at a hair salon might be more anxiety-provoking for someone than going to the gym and working out independently.”

Krompinger said that no matter your level of fear about returning to “life as we knew it, all of us should acknowledge that returning to normal means taking a risk.” Understanding rules and taking precautions, he believes, can help. “When people make preparations to go out into public, they should adhere to the guidelines put forth by the CDC and local governments with the goal of mitigating, but not eliminating risk,” he shared. “The more we try to get rid of uncertainty that cannot be gotten rid of, the more anxious we get.”

Krompinger recommended that people “decide what risks they are willing to take and identify why those are meaningful.” He gave the example of someone who decided to have a meal at a restaurant with their family using outdoor seating. He said that they may be willing to do this “because this constitutes a valued family ritual that will provide positive memories for all involved.”

Similarly, Krompinger said, “A person might decide to return to their office workplace even though they technically are still allowed to work from home because it is meaningful for them to join in solidarity with essential workers that have had no choice but to work through the pandemic.”

Many will struggle to transition from our locked-down coronavirus mode to the old way of life. “This is something we call ‘functional impairment,’” Krompinger said. “This means that if you aren’t able to do the things that you want or need to do due to anxiety, it’s a good time to consider seeing a professional.