For Carole Brown, everything about entering a post-pandemic future causes her anxiety to spike.
The thought of eating inside of a restaurant or going to a house party — even when people are fully vaccinated — gives her “heart palpitations,” she says.
Over the last several months, Brown says it’s been hard to navigate her anxiety and overall mental health.
“I’m always the one who takes control and makes everybody safe… If you told me a year ago that this is the shape I would be in, I would have laughed,” she said.
“I can’t imagine going to a concert again, I can’t imagine flying… I’ll probably wear a mask to travel and (when) in crowds.”
Brown isn’t alone in these feelings, it seems; although the future remains uncertain, the thought of transitioning into post-pandemic normalcy poses numerous anxieties for a lot of Canadians. While many people will have no trouble re-engaging, a large swath of the population is reluctant to reemerge and will need to slowly ease out of pandemic norms.
A survey by Mental Health Research Canada last fall found that 22 per cent of Canadians are experiencing high anxiety levels amid the pandemic. The percentage of those reporting high anxiety is four times greater than what Canadians were experiencing prior to COVID-19.
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Additionally, a February poll by Ipsos revealed 56 per cent of Canadians are feeling increased stress or anxiety as a result of the pandemic.
“The way we see anxiety can be quite varied, but it’s generally because of some sort of threat that we’re perceiving that is getting in the way of us being able to live our day-to-day,” says Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical psychologist and founder of Silm Centre for Mental Health in Toronto.
Our bodies can experience anxiety in a variety of ways. Physically, it can be a racing heart, sweaty palms and nausea. Mentally, anxiety can torture us with sleeping difficulties, or possibly drive us into self-isolation, away from prying eyes, opinions and unwanted interactions.
According to Alani-Verjee, for those who didn’t have pre-existing anxiety, the continual, prolonged fear for their own and others’ safety and health, as well as grappling with how they’re going to be able to meet their goals for the future — and even what the future is going to look like — has resulted in anxiety.
While Brown stays home for work, she has found herself worrying about her son and husband, who both leave the house for work.
“My anxiety has to also do with that. They’re still out there,” said Brown, adding she constantly thought about her husband when he had to travel for work during the pandemic.
“I was worried about my husband being away and what was happening to him flying all over the world.”
‘All of us are carrying baggage called COVID-19’
Even some seemingly mundane things are causing anxiety for Canadians.
Chanakya Ramdev, founder of Sweat Free Apparel, doesn’t think he will feel comfortable kissing on a first date in a post-pandemic future.
“If everyone is vaccinated, it’s going to be like that hot summer when everyone would go crazy, but realistically I feel everyone would… be hesitant,” the Waterloo, Ont., resident said.
While Ramdev has tried online dating during the pandemic through apps like Bumble, he misses making in-person connections.
“The etiquette of dating has changed,” he says. “Things as simple as holding hands and all of that. I feel that all of us will be figuring out what the new normal etiquette is.”
Ramdev says COVID-19 has added the element of fear to the dating scene, too.
“It’s almost like all of us are carrying baggage called COVID-19, whether we actually got it or not.”
Similarly, Jessica Antony, a Winnipeg-based writer, says the pandemic has reduced dating to going for walks or communicating digitally.
“Dating has been ridiculous because it’s going for walks or basically becoming pen pals with somebody because you spend so much more time communicating electronically or digitally,” she said.
Antony misses going to shows or out for drinks, but says the pandemic has made her rethink how many people touch common spaces in places like concerts, workplaces and schools.
“You rethink, ‘Oh God, those places are so dirty. How many people touched the rim of this glass I’m about to take a drink out of?’” she said.
Antony has previously conducted communications workshops around Manitoba, but now, the thought of being exposed to that many people makes her feel uncomfortable.
The last year has changed the way people operate, work and live, she adds.
“I definitely am experiencing feelings of anxiety thinking about going back into a variety of different workplaces where pre-pandemic, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it,” she said.
Like Antony, communications professional Jenn Wint says the pandemic has made her more conscious (perhaps too conscious) of the people and activities around her, adding she has even found herself wondering where TV characters’ masks are while watching her favourite shows.
“I think this has changed a lot of relationships and friendships. I’ve noticed this for myself and for people within my friend circles,” says Wint, adding she never cared before if her friends washed their hands — but now she does.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Wint was looking forward to going back to events like festivals and markets. Now, the Vancouver resident says she’s going to have to ease herself back into post-pandemic normalcy due to her newfound anxiety.
“I’ve never really had anxiety before, like 14 months ago… and now I feel like I’m a highly anxious person,” she says.
Wint points to examples from her daily life: sharing food with others and taking public transit — things she would do regularly — are now big feats that she thinks will take her a long time to return to.
“I think it’s important to talk about being anxious about these things because I think a lot of people are. It’s important for people to know that when you’re vaccinated, it’s not like you have to just go out to a concert,” she says.
Additionally, Wint says the pandemic has taught us a lot of lessons. She hopes Zoom calls replace in-person meetings, and that prioritizing workers’ well-being and looking at larger issues like child care or labour will continue.
“It’s gonna take time and I think the mental health conversation as we transition back to some kind of new normal is as important as when we transitioned into the pandemic,” says Wint.
‘We will find a new state of normal’
For those feeling reluctant about a post-pandemic world, Alani-Verjee says easing into it and giving people the opportunity to choose how they want to ease into it is going to be important.
As an example, Alani-Verjee hopes employers will give employees the option of whether they want to return to work full-time, work from home or a mix of both.
“What everyone needs is going to be so varied. For some folks, they’re going to be totally fine to go visit friends again, and for others, they might start by visiting one or two friends, and still maintain their social distance,” she said.
Alani-Verjee adds we all need to reflect on what we want our own post-COVID-19 transition to look like.
“The concept of returning to normal is never, ever going to be the case. And that’s not to say that we won’t find a new state of normal but there is no going backwards in time,” said Alani-Verjee.
“We will find a new state of normal for ourselves and what that normal is will at some point start to feel comfortable.”
If people are forced to transition in one way, they will continue to feel that lack of control they experienced during the pandemic, and that may cause discomfort that will last for a long time, she says.
According to Anxiety Canada, some guidelines Canadians can follow to gradually return to normalcy include starting small and gradually working up to more difficult situations, reminding themselves of the reasons to re-engage, continuing to follow public health guidelines and debriefing with themselves after feeling anxious.
Additionally, the organization suggests unplugging from news and social media and to be self-compassionate about managing their anxiety and worries during the pandemic.
“We get to shape that to some extent for ourselves so there won’t be as much of it being imposed on us. We have agency and we have control, which should hopefully ease at least some of the anxiety around returning to life,” she said.
Thinking about what people want and need for themselves, taking lessons learned from the pandemic and implementing them in the future, and taking care of ourselves can help us feel better about our future each day, says Alani-Verjee.
Are you or someone you care about suffering from anxiety related to the pandemic? Here are some helpful resources.