Tips to deal with anxiety as country reopens from coronavirus pandemic

NEW YORK (WABC) -- As the United States continues to reopen from the coronavirus pandemic, many may experience anxiety related to resuming activities in public and adjusting to the new normal.

People have been cooped up for more than three months, with concerns building prior to that. So how do you reenter society? What fears are normal, and what can you do to manage the anxiety?

Steve Georgiou does renovations inside Manhattan apartments, a complex process even before COVID. But now, things are more complicated.

"How we're supposed to bring materials up to the job site?" he said. "How many people in an elevator? All this causes delays and money."

Mona Zessimopoulos is an attorney who had been working in an empty office, until now.

"I'm stressing about how I'm going to manage to get the work done, and then the whole idea of coming back to a full office building," she said. "You know, right now, there's a sign that says, 'One person in the elevator at a time.'"

New Yorkers, pent up for months, suddenly have to widen their circle, whether it's through commuting or arranging child care again. And for parents, the re-opening brings double the concerns because suddenly, that anxiety is in the workplace and in the home.

"Recognize that if you do bring someone into the house that they follow social distancing, that they wear a face mask,"Northwell Health Psychiatrist Dr. Victor Fornari said.

Experts say some stress is normal and could even keep us healthier.

"Having some anxiety reminds people that they need to follow that guidance in order to be safe," Dr. Fornari said.

Dr. Charles Herrick, chair of psychiatry at Nuvance Health, has tips on how to manage and overcome fears and worries related to reopening. He is also discussing red flags that may indicate someone is having difficulty coping with reopening.

Whether health concerns, financial challenges, social isolation, or changes to your daily routine, you have probably experienced some degree of anxiety or worry during the past few months, which Dr. Herrick says is normal.

He says focusing on the facts, following your feelings, understanding the risks, and learning about safety measures that organizations are taking can help to calm anxiety. But becoming extremely isolated or engaging in reckless behavior could indicate you or a loved one is having difficulty.

Businesses and healthcare facilities must achieve several benchmarks before they can safely reopen, and many state governments, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, are implementing a phased approach. As communities progresses through these phases, it will create opportunities for people to re-engage socially in a natural and gradual way, which may help to reduce anxiety.

But if you still feel nervous about resuming normal activities, Dr. Herrick offers the following tips:

--Focus on facts: Focusing on the facts can help you make informed decisions as you resume normal activities. Make sure you're getting your COVID-19 information and recommendations from trusted sources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your state and local health departments, and hospitals and healthcare systems in your area.

--Learn about safety measures: Find out about the health and safety measures that businesses, hospitals, and medical offices in your community are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nuvance Health, for example, has implemented new infection prevention protocols, including screening, enhanced cleaning/disinfecting, personal protective equipment (PPE), and check-in/check-out procedures designed to help protect our patients and staff.

--Follow your feelings: Just because your community is starting to reopen doesn't necessarily mean you'll feel ready to resume your normal activities right away. Make decisions based on how you feel and your interpretation of the facts. If you choose to be more cautious because you're part of a high-risk group -- or for any other reason -- it's reasonable to wait to see how reopening goes before resuming activities in public.

--Understand the risks: It's important to understand your personal and community risk factors and accept responsibility for the risk you choose to take on. And remember, nothing in life is without risk, it's just a part of living.

Overcoming anxiety boils down to facing fear and learning to deal with it. How you accomplish this goal depends on your personal preferences. Dr. Herrick recommends the following approaches:

--Incremental step approach: This approach involves increasing your exposure to your fear little by little so that your anxiety level decreases over time. If you're nervous about leaving your home, for example, you could start by taking a walk around your neighborhood. Then, you might try chatting with a neighbor while maintaining social distancing, and progress to driving to a neighborhood store to make a drive-thru grocery or medication pickup. Eventually, you might try shopping for your own groceries in the store or eating at a restaurant that offers outdoor dining.

--Flooding approach: The flooding approach involves full exposure all at once, like throwing someone who is afraid of water into a swimming pool. Using the example above, some people may find it effective to just "go for it" and skip to the last step by shopping in the store or eating at a restaurant right away.

It is likely that COVID-19 will be with us for a while, but Dr. Herrick says most will eventually get used to the changes brought about by the virus, such as wearing masks and social distancing, and become more comfortable living with some degree of risk related to the virus.

Although you should remain vigilant to protect yourself and your loved ones, he says your anxiety around COVID-19 will likely diminish over time. But if you notice overly reckless behavior during reopening, such as completely ignoring safety recommendations or putting others at risk, it could be a sign that you or a loved one needs help.

If you're so worried about COVID-19 that you isolate yourself to an extreme and are unable to function, take care of yourself, sleep, or you're having panic attacks, you may need to seek help.

Dr. Herrick says to keep an eye out for signs that you or your loved ones may be having trouble coping, and reach out to a mental health professional if necessary.

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