After more than a year of social isolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario mother Paula Schuck says she and her family do not want to be anywhere near a crowd as the process of reopening is now under way in the province.
With a sharp drop in coronavirus cases coupled by rising vaccination coverage, restrictions have started to ease across Canada.
While most Canadians are feeling comfortable with the pace of reopening, half the population is also anxious about resuming normal activities, according to a new Ipsos poll Saturday conducted exclusively for Global News.
“I think everybody is feeling a bit apprehensive about what things look like and how to still be safe and just how much is too fast,” said Schuck, 52, who lives in London, Ont.
Her main concern is for both of her teenage daughters, who already suffer from social anxiety, to be able to go back to school safely.
“It will take a while before we’re able to feel comfortable with going to the theater or going to a concert .. and it will probably look different,” she told Global News.
Schuck is not alone in feeling this way.
Ipsos polling showed that 51 per cent of Canadians agree that they feel nervous about resuming normal activities, while 49 per cent disagree. Younger people are more likely to feel social anxiety about the future compared with those above the age of 35, according to the online survey of more than 1,000 Canadians.
Mental health experts say feeling anxious is only natural and is expected as people start to reacquaint themselves with social norms after more than 15 months of tight restrictions.
“We’ve all been at such a heightened state of vigilance. It takes some time for your body and your mind to come down from that,” said Dr. Sarah Levitt, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
But at the same time, anxiety can be a “very helpful reaction,” prompting us to take measures to protect ourselves, she added.
The reopening is more likely to present challenges for people with pre-existing anxiety or mental health concerns, said Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, professor of psychiatry at UofT.
Frontline healthcare workers, those who got COVID-19 or lost a loved one to the disease, are also at a higher risk of anxiety once things start to open up, he added.
“We know that there are some mental health complications that could linger after COVID-19 and with reopening, it can be scarier for those individuals who’ve experienced COVID-19 firsthand,” Sockalingam told Global News.
Tasha Stansbury, 27, who describes herself as an introvert, has struggled with social anxiety in the past.
She says seeing big crowds once again with more people socializing at restaurant patios in her bar-heavy Ottawa neighborhood is making her nervous.
“I’ve been isolating with the same two people for the past year almost, so I’m okay with just hanging out in our apartment,” she said.
Seven in 10 Canadians agree that they are confident in their province’s reopening plan, while 13 per cent strongly agreed, according to the Ipsos poll.
Stansbury says the experience of the pandemic has lowered her sense of trust in people.
“There’s so much we still don’t know and it feels a little hasty to be going forward so quickly right now.”
More than 75 per cent of eligible Canadians aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine as of Friday, according to covid19tracker.ca. Almost 19 per cent have been fully vaccinated.
People’s vaccination status will also be a critical factor that will influence who they connect and socialize with, said Sockalingam.
Earlier this month, Schuck met a friend, who has been fully vaccinated, in what was her first in-person social interaction in over a year.
She said she will feel more at ease once her whole family has received their second dose.
How to cope with anxiety
Provinces are currently in the initial phase of their reopening plans.
As more restrictions are lifted in the weeks and months ahead, Sockalingam and Levitt advised Canadians to take a step-wise approach and slowly re-engage in social activities that they are comfortable with.
“You don’t have to go from zero to 100,” said Levitt.
“You don’t have to go from sitting inside your house to all of a sudden being the life of a party in a crowded indoor space,” she added.
Reestablishing a routine or structure with each phase of reopening can be helpful, said Sockalingam.
Clear communication from leaders and public health officials about the actual threat and prevalence of COVID-19 in the community is important so people can gauge the risks of taking part in certain activities, said Levitt.
“You have to do what feels right for you,” she said.
Both Levitt and Sockalingam also encouraged people to talk to friends and family to try to overcome their anxiety.
But if the problem persists to the extent that it starts to limit one’s social activity, day-to-day routines and ability to function, then professional help is recommended.
“There might be feelings of pressure to do more than you want to because of your anxiety,” said Levitt.
“I hope that as we reopen, people give themselves some slack.”
— with files from Global News’ Jamie Mauracher