There is no question that the Covid-19 pandemic has done a number on many American’s mental health.
According to an American Psychological Association poll of nearly 1,800 psychologists published in November, nearly 30% said they were seeing a bump in patients due to the pandemic thanks largely to more anxiety and depressive disorders.
But now, Covid-19 vaccinations are picking up — with nearly 44% of the U.S. population having at least one shot, and more than 30% fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Businesses are opening back up and some people are even heading back to the office after a year at home.
While the momentum has many people excited, the idea of getting back into “normal” life has many others feeling FOGO — the fear of going out.
“It’s perfectly natural to have FOGO after one year or more in lockdown,” Sheva Rajaee, a licensed psychotherapist and the Director of The Center for Anxiety and OCD tells CNBC Make It.
Over the past year it’s been ingrained in people’s minds that interactions with others, especially in enclosed spaces can be dangerous, if not lethal, so many people may find themselves anxious at the thought of re-entry into society, she says.
But FOGO is more than the fear of getting sick, it can also be influenced “by a kind of situational social anxiety,” which many have developed as a result of a year or more in lockdown, says Rajaee.
“The reality is that most of us are out of practice,” she says when it comes to socializing.
But Rajaee says it’s important to note that, for most people, FOGO is likely to be temporary and will subside naturally as the world opens up.
Here are some tips on fighting FOGO and getting back to life, according to three psychologists.
Take things slow and be ‘sure enough’
When it’s deemed safe to attend gatherings and be in close proximity to strangers again, Rajaee says it’s important to take things slowly and start with small outings.
For instance, you may be more comfortable dining outdoors, so start there and “eventually work your way to dining indoors at a restaurant, if that is deemed safe in your region,” she says.
“From there, begin to work your way slowly to higher-level exposures, such as spending time with other fully vaccinated people or doing other activities deemed appropriate by the CDC.” If that makes you nervous, spend 15 minutes in a group setting and progress to longer spans of time.
Rajaee says you may notice an uptick in anxious thoughts when doing these things, but remember that it is just the residual reaction of your brain’s threat response, wanting to keep you safe. “These thoughts are not necessarily true,” she says.
In fact, beginning to slowly push yourself back into normal life could actually be beneficial for your mental, physical and social well-being.
And since there is no way to be 100% sure that you will not get sick or get others sick, “complete certainty” about your safety cannot be the goal. “We only need to be sure enough,” she says.
Write down your fears and have a mantra
People often interpret anxiety as a sign that they should not do whatever is making them anxious. In reality, it is sometimes just your body signaling that a situation is new or different, says licensed clinical psychologist Hannah Weisman, who is the vice president of clinical operations at the virtual group support platform Sesh.
To deal with such anxiety, Weisman says you need to acknowledge and get to the bottom of your fears, and a good way to do that is by writing them down. Naming your fears turns them into “something you can evaluate and prepare for,” she says.
Once you’ve named your fears, think about how accurate those worries actually are and even challenge them. “Our minds are great at jumping to conclusions, exaggerating what might not go well, or falling into black-and-white thinking patterns,” she says.
So if you’re telling yourself things like: “if I go to this event, I will probably have a terrible time” or “everyone is going to judge me,” ask yourself “Is there a chance you might enjoy yourself at the event? Do people really judge you as much as you judge yourself?”
Also come up with more helpful thoughts to replace the negative ones, like “if I go to this party, I might not have a good time, but it’s also possible I could have fun” or “I’m going to focus on being confident in myself regardless of what others think,” Weisman says.
Having a mantra that you can say to yourself in anxious moments when reintroducing yourself into society, can also help. For example: “It’s important to me to connect with friends” or simply “I’m here to have fun.”
Finally, Weisman says focusing on your breathe can help ground you. Sesh’s website encourages users to breathe all the way into their stomachs and slowly let the air out. A longer exhale is a signal to your body that everything is okay and it will help you relax, says Weisman.
Take a few moments and visualize
Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has focused her nearly three decades of research on how people think about the future and set goals.
To fight FOGO, Oettingen suggests taking a few moments to visualize how wonderful it would be to finally be out, with others, in life again. Imagine how free and relieved you would feel, for instance.
“Then ask yourself, ‘What is it in me that holds me back from getting into life again? What is my main inner obstacle to taking the first step?’” she says. “Is it an anxiety, an irrational belief, just the habit of the past months hiding away?”
Once you find your inner obstacle, sit with it and vividly imagine it and experience it in your mind, says Oettingen, who is the author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.”
Then figure out an effective but simple “if-then-plan” to get past the obstacle. For instance, tell yourself, “if my anxiety creeps up, I will call my friend and ask her out for dinner or if I feel sluggish sitting on the sofa, then I will get up and [go] buy myself a little treat.”
At LCC we cover the full range of emotional issues and have a dedicated and highly skilled team ready to help you manage your anxiety.