Reopening anxiety: shaking lockdown habits may be difficult
By Melissa Couto Zuber
Samantha Yammine felt a wave of anxiety last week before visiting the new coffee shop she’d been eyeing in the neighbourhood.
The once seemingly easy task of stepping into a cafe and ordering a drink had grown into a tense and unpleasant hurdle in the neuroscientist’s mind. Hoping to ease her nerves with a distraction, she called her friend on the walk there and kept the call going while she ordered her beverage
As provinces lift more COVID-19 restrictions, some people are rushing to regain their pre-pandemic social lives. But others, including Yammine, are feeling more apprehensive about venturing out.
The science communicator, who goes by Science Sam on social media, said that’s to be expected after 16 months of pandemic precautions.
“Our brains have been on high alert for stress and fear, so neuroanatomically it makes sense why people may be feeling (anxious),” she said. “But the good news is the brain is like a muscle that can relearn.
“It’s like if you keep crossing a field the same way, it slowly carves a path in the grass. But if you stop taking that path, the grass grows back.”
Ontario entered Step 2 of its reopening plan last Wednesday, allowing indoor gatherings of up to five people and permitting some retail and religious services to operate with capacity limits.
Other provinces have taken less cautious approaches, including Alberta, which lifted a province-wide mask mandate as of Thursday while restaurants, bars and retail opened at full capacity.
Fears over the more transmissible Delta variant could be driving reopening anxiety for some, especially in areas where vaccine uptake has been lower, Yammine said. But she expects people to have different reasons for their worries, including social or general anxiety.
Yammine said her coffee-shop consternation was more of a general apprehension rather than fear fueled by COVID-19. She said calling a friend helped her through that visit because it associated feelings of safety — a good friend’s voice — to a task that caused anxiety, but others may find different coping mechanisms that work for them.
“The brain does a lot of context-dependent learning, so bringing something safe into that situation made it easier,” she said. “If I had just walked (to the cafe) quietly, the anxiety circuits in my brain would just go into overdrive, and it can be really hard to break those once they get started.”
Claire Champigny, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at York University, said our brains have formed associations over the last 16 months — linking physical distancing and mask-wearing to safety and security — which can make leaving the perceived pandemic-safe bubbles of our homes tough for some.
Champigny said there will be a “spectrum of reactions” to lifted restrictions, but she wouldn’t be surprised if some prefer to hold onto those measures, especially mask-wearing.
“There’s been a really interesting shift in our culture where we’ve associated masks with safety and that was absolutely not the case in North America before (the pandemic),” Champigny said, adding that while some embraced masking others saw face coverings as symbols of restrictions.
“The first time we had to wear masks in grocery stores felt very unnatural. So it’s possible we go back to that faster than we think.”
Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, a psychiatrist and clinical scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said safety habits formed during the pandemic, and continued messages from officials about COVID risk, can stir up anxiety as people try navigating a world with eased restrictions.
Varying vaccination status among social groups could complicate things, he added, suggesting those feeling anxious take things slowly and communicate their comfort level to friends and family.
Data from a recent U.S. survey suggests around 50 per cent of Americans have some anxiety about reopening, and Sockalingam said similar surveys from across North America suggest the same
Those fears can bring other anxieties to the forefront, Sockalingam said. People who lost loved ones or experienced other life-altering events such as changing jobs or moving to new cities might find themselves having to redefine their identity and new roles in society.
“The pandemic has been a tragic and transformative experience for all of us in different ways,” Sockalingam said. “There’s angst about risk of infection and how we re-assess risk, but also about what our social connection and networking is going to be like, whether that’s in a professional context … or with family and friends.”
While mental health has been an ongoing discussion throughout the pandemic, Sockalingam doesn’t want to see that slip away in post-lockdown life.
“We (must) acknowledge that anxiety is normal and we might need to slow our pace, get a bit more support and refocus on coping strategies,” he said.
“I do hope we don’t have a short memory for the importance of that.”