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What to Do if You're Terrified to Return to Work

Re-entering life may be difficult.

Dear Dr. G.,

I am a 26-year-old woman who has been quarantining and responsibly seeing friends (outside only) throughout the pandemic. I have also been working from home, where I live alone. I have been fully vaccinated for about a month and my employer has recently started talking to us about returning to work. We should be returning within the next 8 weeks on a modified schedule. I know that I'm vaccinated and this is safe, but I'm having horrible anxiety around it. I feel anxious doing basic tasks (drug store, grocery store) and can't imagine being in a work setting. My workplace is a nonprofit that works with teenagers. I worry because many of the teens will not be vaccinated. Normal interactions make me feel afraid because I was so afraid during the pandemic. I'm so worried I won't be able to adjust and get past my anxiety as I return to work. My fear is that I will be so anxious that I won't be able to focus on work and could risk losing my job. I'm also worried about social interactions returning to "normal" and being left out because I decline due to my discomfort. One part of me knows that I'm vaccinated and mostly safe, but the other is terrified to restart my old life. Any suggestions?

A Scared Employee

Dear Employee,

Thank you for writing to me. You are among a very large group of people in all sorts of jobs who are anxious not about only returning to work but also about re-entering social relationships and life in general. You represent the feelings of so many. I very much understand the anxiety that you are feeling. We cannot be expected to be in fear of Covid for so many months and then instantly become calm following vaccination. Human emotions do not work that way. It takes more than the vaccine to return to a calmer state of mind.

I commend you for your careful behavior during this past year. It sounds like you followed CDC guidelines in an attempt to keep yourself safe. Your fear about returning to work makes sense. You haven't been there for a while and it is no longer part of your daily routine. I am glad that you will be returning to work on a modified schedule at first. This will give you time to gradually get used to being back at the workplace. You are correct in thinking that not everyone will be vaccinated. The important thing is that you are vaccinated and you will continue to wear a mask and follow other guidelines recommended by the CDC. You will likely feel more comfortable over time as you get used to the work setting and continue to follow recommendations to keep yourself and others safe. You may very well continue to feel anxiety but the return to normalcy may ease your anxiety as you begin to focus on your work, your peers, and things other than COVID-19.

I understand that you are concerned that you will be overwhelmed by anxiety and will be unable to adjust. Talk to your peers about how they are managing their anxiety. They may share healthy and useful ways of thinking about things that make sense to you. Remember, no one expects you to be totally anxiety-free. Be kind to yourself. Anxiety takes time to dissipate. It is also unlikely that you will lose all of your friends. Explain your concerns to them. You may choose to be left out of some of the social interactions that make you uncomfortable. Make sure that you maintain your friendships by seeing your friends in situations that you are most comfortable in. I believe that your friends will be supportive. We have all learned to be more flexible during this strange and confusing year.

Instead of focusing on the worst possible outcomes, perhaps you can take a gentler approach with yourself. You may benefit from taking baby steps in order to re-enter life. Think one store at a time, one interaction at a time, and one day at a time. Try to enlist the support of your friends and perhaps your family. Emotional support and shared concerns and coping styles can be incredibly helpful. Just as moods are contagious, healthy coping styles can also be contagious. We learn many things from one another. One benefit of gradually re-entering life might be that you are exposed to others who have a positive impact on you. You will learn how to better manage your anxiety by observing how they manage theirs.

My hope is that your comfort level will improve over time with gradual exposure to the situations that are causing the anxiety. If your comfort level doesn't improve over time then perhaps you will want to speak with a therapist. Good luck.

Dr. G.

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