Advice Navigating COVID-19 Reopenings

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue, and cities and states move toward full re-opening, many people are feeling re-entry anxiety – an uneasiness about returning to the old normal of schools and offices, hugs and handshakes, and social gatherings large and small. 

The American Psychological Association reports that Americans are experiencing the highest levels of stress since April 2020, and that half of surveyed adults are uneasy about returning to in-person interactions. It’s as if each of us, having spent the last year adrift in space, alone or in our small pods, now has to navigate a re-entry into co-existence.

“Re-entering the busy world will be a new type of stress, because we’re not used to it anymore,” said Elissa Epel, PhD, professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry. “It simply has a lot of challenges embedded into it: being in traffic, getting to work on time, parking, managing family schedules, and having social interactions all day. Those are the small things that can add up to leave you feeling overstimulated or exhausted, making it an unpleasant transition.”


There’s no right or wrong way to handle re-entry, but mental health experts offer some advice: communicate your needs, go at your own pace, and think of the changes as a way to build resilience. 

A Range of Potential Anxiety

Just as we all had different pandemic experiences, our re-entry experiences will be diverse.

“There’s going to be a range of potential anxiety,” said Stacy Torres, PhD, assistant professor of Social Behavioral Sciences at the UCSF School of Nursing, “and we really can’t assume things in terms of people’s lived experiences, or of how they’ve been safeguarding themselves – or not – in the past year.”

This will show up in the most basic, everyday interactions. Epel tells a story which may soon be common: “I was talking to someone, but she was too close to me for my comfort. As I stepped backwards, she stepped forward. With each step my anxiety was rising!” Epel said that though it may not be fully rational, given the new data about vaccination safety, but