As the weather gets warmer and millions of people continue to be vaccinated every day, Americans begin to feel optimistic that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic may finally be behind them.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued new guidelines that say fully vaccinated individuals can travel safely, meet with friends and family, and take off masks while outdoors, indicating a dramatic second world for many Americans who followed guidelines for public health security.
But after more than a year of living in fear of COVID-19, some fully vaccinated individuals are reluctant to leave their homes and fail their guard.
“Many of us have become very familiar with the security that our isolated environments have provided, and taking these first steps out of our safe, home-controlled environments can cause fear and anxiety,”
Anxiety can stem from usual fears learned during the pandemic, individual past trauma and inconsistent message from health agencies, health experts say. However, there are ways to manage it and slowly return to society.
Where does COVID fear and anxiety come from?
The human brain is firmly wired to respond to fear and threat, said Kirsten Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Fear is adaptable and is used to teach people to avoid things that threaten their being.
“The challenge is because it’s so easy to learn that it’s hard to learn,” she said. “Because our brains have evolved to code fear so well, it’s hard to turn it off.”
Over the past year, Americans have learned to avoid meeting friends and family, eating at bars and restaurants, and traveling for fear of becoming infected with coronavirus. Learning that fear will require active and purposeful work, Koenen said, especially for people who are naturally risk-averse.
Some people are innately more anxious than others and avoid risky behaviors based on past experiences and traumas, she said. These people are more likely to take more time to re-enter the post-pandemic society.
“One of the things we talk about in trauma is called shattered assumptions. Some people go through the world with assumptions about the world, and that affects how you react, ”Koenen said. “If you think the world in general is a safe place … many people’s answers are different and shaped by different experiences and traumas.”
Fear and anxiety are further shaped by one’s experience during the pandemic, she added. If someone lost a loved one to COVID-19, they may be more careful about letting their guard down regardless of vaccination status.
In general, studies have shown that anxiety among Americans has shot up since the start of the pandemic. WebMD has seen a 251% increase in searches for anxiety medications from April 8 to 23, according to Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD.
“For many people, it will take some time to adjust to a new norm that is not entirely prepandemic, but is approaching,” he said.
Inconsistent messages from public health officials and the medical community have not helped Americans’ anxiety, say mental health experts. It promotes uncertainty about the COVID-19 vaccines, transmission of society, and whether it is really safe to step out, which may cause people concern.
“The problem with conflicting information – which is perfectly normal in science because knowledge evolves – is that it creates uncertainty that breeds fear and anxiety,” Koenen said.
How to deal with fear and anxiety after the pandemic
Growing vaccination rates and an increase in outdoor activity due to hot weather will provide “a very quiet summer,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“The vaccines we use are extraordinarily good at preventing the worst outcomes of the disease,” he said. “It’s happening at a time when things are already pretty low in society.”
Despite the good news, some fully vaccinated individuals may need time to adjust to the new freedoms recommended by the CDC, say mental health experts. One of the best ways to overcome this anxiety and fear is through exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment in which individuals are “exposed” to the things they would normally fear and avoid, according to the American Psychological Association.
“The way to work through anxiety is to take very small steps forward and expose yourself to manageable amounts of anxiety,” said Chanoff of McLean Hospital. “As you become more and more comfortable with small amounts of anxiety, it creates self-confidence and it allows you to take the next step.”
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Start with exposures that are personally important, says Koenen. If it is important to associate with friends, start by choosing a controlled environment outdoors that poses a small risk of infection. From there, a person can build for a visit to an outdoor public space to see that friend or invite them inside the house.
“People are going to have to be their own therapist, their own coaches are figuring it out,” she said.
Overcoming pandemic anxiety may also require a shift in perspective, Chanoff said. Instead of looking at this year as a time of uncertainty, she urges those struggling with anxiety to look at it as a chance for a new beginning.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for people to not just return to the life they live that probably had wonderful aspects, but which were not perfect,” she said. “A lot of people have found that this year has really made it possible for them to slow down, let go of things, create new patterns and ways of being.”
“There’s a real opportunity for people to think about what they really want.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage in the USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for ethics, innovation and competition in healthcare. Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article was originally shown in the US TODAY: COVID fears to hold back vaccinated Americans. Where does it come from?