Mental health experts notice new phenomenon: Anxiety about life after COVID-19

Mental health experts are noticing a new phenomenon: anxiety about life after COVID-19.

As restrictions are lifted and activities resume, normal may not feel so "normal" anymore.

"We're in a bridge between two worlds and we're still very much in a pandemic world," said Dr. Elissa Epel, vice chair of the UCSF psychiatry department.  "We have created cocoons for ourselves, and like them or not, they have been a safe place and now we have to leave them for this busier world." 

Epel suggests a gradual approach because change of any kind creates stress.

"I'm not comfortable, I've lost a bit of my comfort in crowds," said Annie Bonacci of San Rafael, who describes her pre-pandemic life as hectic.

Bonacci juggled two jobs, friends and family obligations, and had little unscheduled time.

"And it wasn't okay for me to sit and read a book, I would feel that was a lazy, decadent thing to do," she recalled, "but now reading is an important part of my life."

Bonacci is determined to preserve her leisure time even as life picks up speed.

With vaccines booming and COVID cases dropping, people can get together in ways they have missed.

But for some, being solitary may feel more satisfying than being social.

"For me and probably a segment of the population, that's how it is now, it feels normal and it feels good," said Bonacci.

Therapists also report anxiety among people who dread the thought of commuting and spending hours in the workplace with others.

"It will be very stressful to go back all at once, we're more sensitive now," said Epel. "We haven't been around groups of people all day and having that level of stimulation."

Experts say it's also natural to feel lingering uneasiness, after a year of worry and caution.   

"I'm glad everything is getting back to normal, but I'm hesitant and cautious," said Barbara Hurwick, walking the Bay Trail with a friend in Novato. "I just don't think I'm there yet because there are variants and we don't know who's vaccinated and who's not vaccinated."    

Many people are starting small, with private get-togethers or maybe a movie.

"It wasn't crowded at all," said Teresa Laverde, emerging from a theatre in Novato. "There were only two other small groups of people in the whole theatre and they were far away from us."

When considering a sporting event, concert or flight, experts say be patient with yourself or others because change- even positive change- is stressful.

"The word normal is almost a joke because we are all changed, we live in a different world now," said Epel, "and we are entering this new phase with a lot of fatigue and grief and loss."

Some people may be surprised to experience lingering sadness, even amid the happiness of re-openings.

"This is a tender moment, this is complex," reassures Epel.

Annie Bonacci now works only one job: dog walking.

She has grown accustomed to more outdoor time and doesn't want to relinquish it.

Bonacci is aiming for a balance: a blend of her old life and new.      

"Take care of what needs to be done and socialize some but pick and choose," said Bonacci. "And not rushing- I hope we can hold on to enjoying life and not rushing."