Earlier this month, U.S. President Biden announced that all American adults will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. (In Canada, current estimates say eligible Canadians over the age of 16 should be vaccinated by the end of June.) After a year of tragedy, trauma, depression, and isolation, the types of feelings expected to accompany that news are hope and excitement — finally, a return to "normal." Almost immediately, conversations about what restaurants people would visit and what outfits they'd wear picked up with a new urgency. People joked online about being able to breathe all over their friends and dance in a sweaty crowd at a concert. It'll be another Roaring '20s is the consensus, it seems, the biggest party ever. But what if you’re scared to RSVP?
"I was such a lunatic last March — honestly, last January. I was calling all my friends to be like, 'There's a virus coming, hunker down! Go get your beans!'" New Jersey-based editor Elena Nicolaou, 26, explains in a soft, mock shout. "So now that it may soon be over, I should be the one talking about putting on a bikini and walking outside, but I'm not." Nicolaou isn't the only one who's trepidatious about post-pandemic life. "I often feel the need to pretend I'm more excited than I am," says Chicago-based journalist Emma Sarran Webster, 35. "Inside, I'm feeling all sorts of mixed up about it. Even just seeing people on social media get excited triggers [stress and anxiety]."
Nicolaou and Webster are not alone in feeling conflicted about getting to the other side of the pandemic — but because the end of a pandemic that has killed millions worldwide is obviously a positive thing, it's rare to hear anyone talk about their anxiety at having to return to "normal," and yet there's little doubt that's how many people are feeling. "Humans tend to be somewhat nervous or even resistant to change," psychologist Dr. I-Ching Grace Hung tells Refinery29, explaining why even good change is terrifying. "There's usually some level of anxiety or fear attached because evolutionarily our brains are built to like certainty. We try to do things that help us at least have a sense of control, so even if the change might be positive, there is still that uncertainty and unknown."
Amid a year of intense uncertainty, one of the ways people have learned to cope is by asserting control in whatever way they can and establishing agency over their new lives. It's understandable that it will be hard to give that up and enter yet another new era of uncertainty. For Nicolaou, control has come in the form of getting to work-from-home and abandoning a multi-hour daily commute. "The autonomy that I have over my schedule has been extremely liberating," she shares. "I've been able to work on projects, try out cooking, and just have much more control over my free time, in a way that I find extremely empowering." She’s also had more time to rest. "I no longer have bags under my eyes 24/7."
Nicolaou says that returning to her previous routine of offices and trains would make her feel "trapped," and the idea of losing her freedom is terrifying. Brooklyn-based student and freelance journalist Shelby Hall, 23, feels the same. "This time with myself and those closest to me has brought out more of my drive and relentless passion, and I wouldn't want that to go away when things go back to normal," she shares, adding that she fears the common schedule of working 9 to 5 would make her "boring."
While some people have felt empowered to do things for themselves during this period, others feel like they didn't take full advantage of the time, leading them to feel anxious about returning to a more conventional work routine for completely different reasons. "Even though logically I know I spent a lot of time this past year just trying to process everything that was going on and not be too hard on myself, in retrospect, I sometimes can't help but beat myself up for 'missed opportunities,'" Webster shares. "Why didn't I use all of this downtime to make progress on the various creative ideas I've had floating around in my head for years? Why didn't I get Invisalign when I knew I would be sitting at home all the time anyway? I suddenly feel like I don't have time to do all of the things I've been putting off, and I wasted the chance to do them when I had nothing but time."
While Webster is anxious about all the things she didn't do during the pandemic, others are anxious about the things they did do, like moving or getting a pet. Nicolaou did both. Because she didn't want to ride out COVID alone and because she's close with her family, she gave up her apartment in New York City and moved home to New Jersey to live with her parents and sister. Together, she and her sister fulfilled a childhood dream and adopted a dog. Though she feels confident that these two decisions were right for her, they'll pose complications when things go back to "normal." She says, "It's very easy to take care of a dog when you're home all day, and I'm not sure what it'll look like when I have to go back. Of course, I'll figure it out. Everyone does. But I'm just honestly worried about the logistics of going back into the world."
Throughout this period of instability and fear, people have, all in their own ways, worked hard to create little pockets of protection for themselves, and for many, that has included creating small social pods: Adult children moved back in with their parents, roommates became family, and partners grew even closer. After facing the trauma of 2020 side-by-side, it's no wonder it's frightening for many people to step back from that and let other people in. Dr. Hung acknowledges that it will take motivation, courage, and trust in other people to move forward from these familiar bubbles. One way to gain that courage is to construct new social boundaries for yourself. "Try to figure out what you actually want to do and don't jump into it just because all of a sudden we can," Dr. Hung suggests.
Having interacted with only a select group of people for so long not only created bonds that are difficult to break, but it may have also impaired some people's social skills. Shelby DeWeese, a 28-year-old nonprofit arts administrator living in Minneapolis, says she's really looking forward to hugging her parents, sister, and other loved ones when this is all over, but there are some interactions she's nervous about. "Small talk in elevators, at parties, and during lunch at my workplace are a few of the many instances that would always stir up my anxiety even before the pandemic. Now that it's been a year since I've had practice in this, I am not looking forward to readjusting," she explains. "I have not socialized with anyone face-to-face except for my husband and two pet rabbits for a year. I am so grateful that I've been able to work from home safely and that an end is in sight for this deadly pandemic. But I am also fearful that many of the things I miss — going to group fitness classes, volunteering, dinner parties, board game nights — will be excruciatingly difficult. What do people even talk about?"
Hall is also worried about this return to socializing. "I've always been a homebody, but I've grown to treasure it all the more. I just don't know how I'll be comfortable out in the world," she says. Dr. Hung assumes it will be a little awkward for many of us at first, but says that acknowledging the readjustment period will help us to normalize and navigate the struggle.
Another layer of post-pandemic social anxiety revolves around the fact that, for many people, there is no way to simply flip a switch and suddenly feel completely safe partying. "For the past year, we've been told to avoid other people, stay away from crowds, be extra aware of any possible signs of illness, so now, the idea of going into restaurants, socializing with groups of friends — indoors, of all places! — or even walking down a crowded sidewalk, just feels so daunting and dangerous," Webster shares.
The return of work schedules and social engagements means the return of other societal expectations, which, for some, is the most daunting prospect of all. "As a recent graduate trying desperately to be hired, I'm experiencing extreme anxiety about having to go back out into the world of early 20-somethings on their path to success," says Amanda*, who is 22, unemployed, and currently living in Arizona with her parents. "As much as I hate it, the pandemic has acted like some sort of shield against the anxiety and scrutiny of not being where I need to be right now. I'm dreading a lunch or a coffee chat where we go around describing our jobs or even complaining about them."
Webster, who quit her job and gave up her condo in February 2020 in order to embark on a six-month trip with her husband — only to be forced to return home with no plan or place to live just three weeks later — has been struggling through something similar. "I've experienced [anxiety] with pretty much every new reopening phase," she explains. "Back in the summer, when talk of moving into the first post-lockdown phase began, I told my husband that I was feeling really anxious about it and I couldn't pinpoint why. After all, shouldn't I be excited to have even a little bit more freedom? He said, 'Everyone else is going to start going back to their normal lives, and we don't have a normal life to go back to right now.' We were living in my mom's basement, most of our belongings were in boxes at her house and in our storage unit, and we didn't have jobs. So much about our lives and next steps were up in the air; so while lockdown was tough, at least it felt like we were still on 'pause,' and we didn't have to figure things out right then."
Perhaps, though, because it's so hard to put life on pause, when people did manage to do so successfully, it brought them to a place of self-acceptance and peace — why would they want to press play again? "I think my nervousness stems from how much I've grown within my own self throughout the last year and how much my life has changed," Hall shares. "I don't want to go back to normal and lose myself in the craziness or in wanting to try to act like everybody else again."
Nicolaou feels similarly, saying: "All of the things that I had set as pillars of my future, I realized were illusions — the trips I thought I would take, the things I'd hoped to accomplish in terms of my dating life by a certain age. Those never existed to begin with, they were never real." After months of this no-plans perspective, Nicolaou's outlook on the future and expectations for her life had transformed, in her opinion, for the better. So, when news broke that she would be eligible for the vaccine sooner than she expected, her immediate reaction scared her. "It was like a switch went off. I was like, 'I can make plans now.' I literally heard the typewriter clacking away in my head: Where am I going? What am I doing? Who am I seeing first? What clubs am I going out to dance at? It was a sensory overload." She was thrilled when her grandparents and parents got vaccinated, but the thought of getting the vaccine herself gave her anxiety. "It was like, oh, now I have to go live my life again and go back to having those plans, those plans that were all-consuming and put pressure on me."
"For some, the pandemic has been a window into a different world of what could be," Dr. Hung says. "In a 'normal world,' you have these sets of expectations for yourself and then in a non-normal world, so to speak, you shift those expectations accordingly. What that helps us realize is that we are the ones setting these expectations. You can actually shift those expectations anytime." Dr. Hung says that this will take practice. "It won't come easily to us necessarily because if the external changes, we still have to adapt to it in some way. Maybe the change will shift or look different, but it's still up to you, it's within your level of control to try to be intentional about maintaining that positive change."
And yet, it can feel next to impossible to make those changes when one of the darker aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been how many people were suddenly exposed to the fact that life-altering events can happen at any moment — no matter what we've done to prepare. "Now, having seen the way the world could fall apart, it's like I don't have that trust anymore. I don't have trust that it's not all going to happen again. I think that this has changed my faith in the system holding, which in some ways, is good. I'm very privileged as an American, as a white woman to not have known that so viscerally," Nicolaou shares. "I'm never going to go back into the world with that same carefree attitude." Though this particular realization can be overwhelming, Dr. Hung says it's key in being able to weather the constant ebbs and flows of life.
"The first step in building resilience is awareness and acceptance that constant change is a fundamental part of life," she explains. "This can prepare us to not just brace for impact, but really lean into what may come" Maybe that means going to those crazy post-COVID parties, or maybe it means staying home in the suburbs with your dog. Either way, it means not worrying too much about "what if" and just living in the moment.
*Some names have been changed