How to ease your anxiety about returning to public spaces during COVID-19

·7 min read

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After months in isolation, the anxiety of returning to public spaces can be overwhelming. (Image via Getty Images)
After months in isolation, the anxiety of returning to public spaces can be overwhelming. (Image via Getty Images)

Last Saturday, after a long day of volunteering at a friend's winery, I decided to head to Niagara Falls to catch the sunset. When I arrived at the Falls with a takeout pizza and well-earned cider in hand, I began to feel uneasy. 

Looking at the bustling sidewalk and parks alongside the main attraction area made me feel as though I had stepped into into a war zone, where nobody understood the concept of "social distancing," "social bubble" or personal space. I could see hundreds of heads walking past each other slowly, mostly without their masks on.

I told myself that I was overthinking things and that everything would feel "normal" as soon as I was among the rest of the crowd. Even though I'm double vaccinated and fully immunized, I could feel my palms begin to sweat as I became surrounded by a swarm of people. Eventually, I found myself a place next to the Niagara river, far from the falls and the overwhelming crowd.

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who's been feeling this way in public lately. After almost two years of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, many Canadians are struggling to adjust to what used to be "normal" social practices. 

According to a recent report from Health Canada, at least 78 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 are double vaccinated against COVID-19. Despite those numbers, a Leger survey with the Association of Canadian Studies revealed that 76 per cent of people think it's too soon for the government to lift COVID-19 related restrictions, leading many of us to ask is it too soon or are we just too afraid?

Heading back to public spaces can cause anxiety after spending months being told to isolate. (Image  via Getty Images)
Heading back to public spaces can cause anxiety after spending months being told to isolate. (Image via Getty Images)

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, explained that it's understandable why the fear we adopted during the pandemic to stay healthy could negatively impacting our ability to reintegrate with society. 

According to Joordens, there will be mixed feelings and experiences in resuming social life initially, whether it's going back to the office, dining indoors at restaurants or simply being surrounded by people outside of our "social bubble." Although it might feel odd and induce anxiety, most of us will enter what Joordens calls "the Great Snapback" in no time. 

“We've been really inhibiting our natural ways of responding, and I think it's been exhausting for many of us,” Joordens said. “When we get back to those old places and the people that we're so used to, most of us will be shocked at how quickly we will snapback.” 

As Joordens described it, after a few days of getting back into our old habits, any anxiety will be covered by a "warm blanket" of familiarity.

However, the timeline to experience "the Great Snapback" may not be the same for everyone. While 44 per cent of Canadians think we’re past the worst time of the crisis, we still have to remember that we aren't in the clear just yet. 

“I’m going through the anxiety myself as I’m planning through my first live lecture in the classroom,” Joordens said. 

After working remotely due to COVID, going back to the office can be a stressful transition (Image via Getty Images)
After working remotely due to COVID, going back to the office can be a stressful transition (Image via Getty Images)

As the universities resume their in-person classes, they’ve also come up with their own versions of on-campus COVID-19 protocols. The University of Toronto, among others, has instructed its staff, faculty and students to be vaccinated for in-person sessions.

Teaching a class of 60 students who will be occupying a 500 seat lecture hall for the first time in months seemed "pretty cool at first.” But the logistics of moderating a group of adults indoors, checking names at the door and interacting “makes me feel a bit anxious,” Joordens said.

To ease into the snapback, Joordens recommended people continue following COVID-19 protocols like social distancing, sanitizing hands regularly, wearing masks, and everything you can to stay safe. 

"Don't worry about feeling silly if you're the most conservative person in the workplace," Joordens said. 

Besides, we should continue to acknowledge that this is a unique event of bringing people together that may affect their personal lives to a greater extent. The pandemic has, since its very beginning, affected people at varying levels. 

“I think people have to be very sensitive that some members of the team [at work] may not be ready for [in-person meetings] despite what I said about the ‘Great Snapback,’” Joordens says.

Dev Ramsawakh, a 28-year-old freelance multimedia producer, is immunosuppressed, disabled, and at a higher risk of being affected by the virus. Although they received both doses by July, Ramsawakh said that they've continued to avoid most public indoor spaces or large outdoor gatherings.

Although some people are feeling comfortable heading back to the office, others are opting to remain remote workers for safety reasons. (Image via Getty Images)
Although some people are feeling comfortable heading back to the office, others are opting to remain remote workers for safety reasons. (Image via Getty Images)

“It's an improvement from what I was doing before [vaccination] where I only had two or three people in my bubble," Ramsawakh told Yahoo Canada. "But now I have been able to start seeing people in person and in close proximity but only outdoors."

In addition to wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, Ramsawakh said they've been transparent about the types of activities they've bee up to recently whenever they make plans with other people. 

"It's so my friends have the option to opt-out or switch to something that feels more comfortable to them, safety-wise," they explained. "Especially because I know for immunocompromised folks, they may not develop the immunity from the vaccine even after getting the second dose, because of how their immune system works." 

Anti-vaxxers, meanwhile, contribute to the deep sense of anxiety among people who’re already vaccinated. What if one runs into an infected person and it becomes a spreader situation?

“That is a major reason why I haven't been for indoor dining, or participating in public events or gathering even with things reopening,” Ramsawakh expressed. “Even if I might not be directly affected, I know that I could come in contact with somebody I care about who might be impacted.”

While precautions would continue to help in self-protection, it’s hard to manage community-level anxiety, or thought of putting loved ones at risk. 

Although restrictions are lifting across the country, many people don't feel comfortable about in-person gatherings. (Image via Getty Images)
Although restrictions are lifting across the country, many people don't feel comfortable about in-person gatherings. (Image via Getty Images)

According to Joordens, one way to navigate our anxiety is to ask ourselves one question: is our fear rational? 

Joordens gave an example of one of his students who has opted to abstain from in-person classes because their mother is imunonosupressed. 

“She does still live with her mother and if she came in contact with the virus, even though she's double-vaccinated, she could still bring it back to her mother,” he said. “For someone like her, I wouldn't push it at all. I would say, ‘if you feel comfortable to stay at home until whatever time, let's make that happen.'"

Joordens suggested that workplaces utilize "active listening," which requires patience and non-judgement during conversations, to understand a person's boundaries and hesitancies. 

“Forget your own interests. Just try to spend some time listening to this other person and understanding the situation from their perspective,” he said. “Don't try to put this person out of their comfort zone. We are still in a dangerous time.”

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