When COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., Dan Kerber was drawn to the data. The 48-year-old from Plano, Texas read about case counts and projections every day, keeping his team at the telecommunications company Ericsson up to date on the latest news. So in May, when states including Texas began to reopen before the data showed it was time to do so, Kerber began to get nervous.
Lily Brown, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, says there are two distinct types of re-entry anxiety. Some people are anxious because they have a “lurking fear” of catching or spreading COVID-19, she says, while others have fallen out of practice socializing and are finding it difficult to resume.
Both types of anxiety are likely driven by uncertainty and a fear of unknown harm, Brown says. Ambiguous and ever-changing public-health advice likely doesn’t help, either.
Brown says some anxiety is probably healthy as society reopens, since the virus is still spreading and still poses health risks. A little bit of nervousness can motivate you to follow public-health guidance like social distancing and wearing a mask. But when anxiety starts to interfere with your day-to-day life, it may be a problem, Brown says.
Brown says it’s easy for recommended public-health practices, like washing your hands regularly, to spiral into “safety behaviors” that, consciously or subconsciously, you rely on to keep anxiety at bay.
Be honest about how these safety behaviors are affecting you. If wiping down your groceries “takes you five minutes and it really helps you,” it’s probably not a big deal, even if it’s not strictly recommended, Brown says. But if you’re spending hours a day cleaning your home, that could be a bigger issue. “It’s never really up to me to decide, ‘Is this behavior a problem?’” Brown says. Ask yourself, “Is it getting in the way of the life you want to be living?”
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