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As Life Begins To Return To Normal, Psychologists Say Expect Anxiety


With almost 40% of the U.S. fully vaccinated, many parts of this country are opening up, but not everybody is quite ready. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has been talking with psychologists about why.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Vaile Wright has been fully vaccinated since last week.

VAILE WRIGHT: But I still feel a little trepidation about going out.

CHATTERJEE: Wright is a psychologist and senior director of Health Care Innovation at the American Psychological Association. She says, in fact, most people are feeling a whole range of emotions right now.

WRIGHT: Things like nervousness, anxiety, trepidation, discomfort. And I think that's hard for people to understand because we have been waiting for this moment for so long that it feels like we should just be excited.

CHATTERJEE: And she says it's normal to feel this way because despite the light at the end of the tunnel, there's still a lot of uncertainty.

WRIGHT: We're unclear about what role the variants and vaccine hesitancy is going to play. If you're a parent with children under the age of 12, you're thinking about how can you keep them safe until they're vaccinated? And a lot of things are going to change - the workplace, education, health care. We just don't exactly know what they're going to look like.

CHATTERJEE: Uncertainty, she says, drives up our anxiety, especially since most people have already spent the past year feeling anxious, says psychologist Dana Garfin of the University of California, Irvine.

DANA GARFIN: The pandemic really shattered people's assumptions of their safety, their security, what their lives were going to be like.

CHATTERJEE: Then, Garfin says, a return to normalcy also means a big change. And research shows that any change, good or bad, is stressful, even more so when it means going back to a more hectic pace of life.

GARFIN: So after 14 or 15 months of sitting at home and not having to deal with traffic and having a slower pace of life, people are now having to get in their cars and race to work and sit in a traffic jam and race home to change to run out to a social event.

CHATTERJEE: So how can one make this transition less stressful, less anxiety-ridden? Garfin says, firstly, be patient and kind with yourself. And then she says...

GARFIN: If people were able to find things during the pandemic that gave them comfort, that helped them, I would say to take some of those things with them into the new normal.

CHATTERJEE: So if you found solace in gardening or more time with family during the pandemic, Garfin says, hold on to those things. Psychologist Elissa Epel is at the University of California in San Francisco. She says decide what kinds of other activities and social interactions you're comfortable with and start with those things.

ELISSA EPEL: We're not yet used to going back to normal social interactions, and we need to set our own boundaries and return at our own pace.

CHATTERJEE: Also, she says, in order to move forward, it helps to acknowledge the grief and losses of the past year.

EPEL: We have all had losses or felt the losses. And so to have some type of events where we can actually come together and acknowledge what we've been through, what we would love to leave behind, what we would love to take with us.

CHATTERJEE: And Epel says, no matter how you feel, try to make room for some joy.

EPEL: I think it's wonderful to feel joy, and we shouldn't feel guilty about having a great day or expressing when we feel happy and things are going well.

CHATTERJEE: She says joy is contagious and can help counter the other negative emotions you may be feeling right now.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIHONI'S "AFTER SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.