Post-COVID Anxiety–it’s Not Just The Mask

I know from talking to clients worldwide, in the US, we are further along in ‘returning to normal’ than other countries, but these ideas still apply even if you are still living with lockdowns and high virus counts. 

In the past month, I have read dozens of articles about post-COVID anxiety, each skimming the surface, discussing the fear of removing masks and being less vigilant. Take it slow, they say, and follow your gut. I read each of these articles and internally scream. The anxiety I have been feeling, the anxiety my clients have been feeling, isn’t about wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. It is WAY deeper than that.

I remember a year ago people saying to me, “Wow, I bet your business is hopping with all the people with anxiety.” And my response was, “No, it isn’t because my people are head down getting stuff done. My people are figuring out life under quarantine. They aren’t dealing with their anxiety.”

But here we are a year later, I and many of my clients are reporting an uptick in anxiety. The irony is, if you asked me, “What are you anxious about?” I would say, “I am looking forward to getting back out there. I am anxious because of work or my spouse or the house is a mess.”

Those of us with HFA are skilled at coming up with a reason for our anxiety. And MOST of the time, that reason is not the primary driver. Most of the time, what is driving the anxiety is way deeper than just surface-level annoyance with family, work, or mask-wearing.

In reality, I am anxious because there is a lot to unpack from the past year. Figuring out how to re-enter society isn’t just about mask/or no mask. Figuring out how to re-enter society is about processing what we all lived through in the past 18 months. And as things return to normal, all those unresolved feelings are coming up.   

Processing privilege: Last night, laying in my comfy bed scrolling through my phone, I read an article about these two teenagers who lost their Mom to COVID and now are figuring out how to survive. Tears streamed down my face, thinking of being 18, grieving the loss of both my parents and suddenly responsible for myself and my younger sister. COVID has shredded people’s lives, and yet for most people I know and me, it is as if we took a gap year, and now we can re-enter the world as we lived it pre-pandemic. Recognizing my privilege is one thing; figuring out what to do with it and how to use it to make the community I live in better is another. AND it is a slow, emotionally charged process.

Realigning priorities: The forced pause made me look at my hustle differently. I enjoyed the quieter time with just my ‘bubble’ and not having a packed calendar of events. I appreciated the calm that naturally came from having more space and the group camaraderie of “all being in this together.” It sucked, and yet there was a power in the fact that we all had to slow down and figure it out. For 18 months, my shoulds were quieter, and it was glorious. Now the world is re-opening, and I am torn between jumping on the bandwagon, which is easier or doing the hard thing of discerning what I want to add back into my life and what I don’t. Discernment requires saying no, being uncomfortable, and doubting my worthiness, which I have hooked to achieving and accomplishing. It is easier to move slow when the rest of the world is too.

Acknowledging feelings. Sitting down to write this article, I pulled out my feelings sheet to name the primary feelings I have: grief, anger, sadness, and shame. Grief for those two teenagers who are forced into adulthood while still grieving their Mom, grief for the small business owners who had to shutter their dreams, grief for the increased gun violence, and the addiction to the outrage that we have as a society. Anger for the fact that this is so hard and we are so broken. Sadness that we as a society will move on as quickly as possible. And shame for the fact I am struggling when my suffering was minimal comparatively. The things we learned in the last 18 months could be lost to hustle culture and soldiering on.

So yes, there is still anxiety around the fear of becoming sick with the actual coronavirus. But more so, I feel this pandemic has laid bare the sickness we are experiencing as a culture. To heal, we have to share how we are feeling without fear of being shamed and ridiculed. Not just by other people but by ourselves. Even as I am writing this article, I have noticed how quickly my Monger comes in to tell me I am weak, privileged, whiny, and ungrateful.

When I get quiet, when I slow down, my Biggest Fan steps in to say:

Oh, Sweet Pea, you don’t have to have it all figured out. You do have to be loyal to yourself. And that means let it out, cry, acknowledge those feelings, be intentional about how you want to move forward. There isn’t a right way. There isn’t a road map to life. Just don’t check out. Don’t soldier on. Don’t belittle yourself.

I don’t have the exact road map to moving forward (oh, I wish I did), But here are three things I am reminding myself to do:

  1. This is messy and it is ok.
  2. When my anxiety gets high, I tend to look outside of myself for the answer. When I notice that pattern, I will get into my body, or even go to the mirror, look myself fin the eyes, and say. What is the next right thing to do? Looking in the mirror shuts out the mental chatter and allows me to check-in.
  3. Feelings are valid. We don’t have to react/act on every feeling, but we must acknowledge they exist. I will put my hand on my heart and acknowledge all the messiness that is there.