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Re-entry anxiety hitting many Americans as COVID-19 restrictions loosen

Return to Normal
Posted at 1:27 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 13:27:45-04

ATLANTA, Ga. — For months, we’ve been eagerly waiting for things to return to normal, but it turns out, many people are feeling nervous about going back to the way things were before the pandemic. Experts are calling this feeling ‘re-entry anxiety.’ For Georgia native Corey Knapp, the pandemic revealed a deep struggle with his mental health, making normalcy tough to find. At first, quarantine didn’t faze Knapp.

“I thought I was doing OK not seeing anyone,” he said of the early months of the pandemic. “We were very strict and decided early on: we're going to be really careful."

Knapp lives with his mom and wanted to do everything he could to keep her safe. But instead of finding that ‘new normal,’ Knapp found himself feeling overwhelmed. The days blended and he found himself not sleeping well.

“I was scrolling through Twitter a lot, reading a ton of news, like trying to follow everything, feeling like I kind of had to follow everything,” said Knapp.

All that stress left him with a disturbing thought last August.

“It was kind of like a really gloomy, dreary day,” he recalled. “Looking out the door for that split second, I thought of the movie Dead Poets Society. My mind flashed to the scene where the kid, toward the end of the movie, kills himself. I was like, 'Dang, what if I did that?'”

The thought paralyzed him.

“I was laying in bed and, like, got really warm but also like really cold at the same time; heart was racing,” he recalled.

He didn’t realize he just had a panic attack until those thoughts came back a few days later. Knapp said the thought flashed into his mind as he walked outside.

“Just kind of like had this vision of me, like hanging, like hanging dead, like on one of the hooks in the garage, like on the bike racks, and that, really freaked me out,” he said.

He didn’t know where these thoughts were coming from, but they frightened him, especially when he thought about his family.

“If I did that to myself, I would be dead. But like, how would my mom cope with that? And so, that was really kind of two things at the same time that really broke me,” said Knapp.

He knew he needed to reach out for help, so he talked with his family and friends about it right away.

“Therapy has been incredible for me,” said Knapp.

Knapp was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Through therapy, he learned intrusive thoughts were a common occurrence with OCD. It's something he may not have learned without living through COVID-19, and he’s not alone.

“The pandemic set off an alarm in people's brain,” said Dr. Ikeranda Smith, a life coach and counselor in Atlanta. Dr. Smith said in the last year the number of clients she treats has nearly tripled. She said the pandemic was a trigger for mental illness of all kinds.

“As a nation, I think that we didn't know that we were grieving life as we knew it,” said Dr. Smith. “This is grief. This is sadness. This is a new normal.”

Now, even as the country is re-opening and life seems like it’s going back to normal, those feelings of uneasiness aren’t going away. The mental illnesses that were revealed during the pandemic are only being exacerbated by new environmental pressures.

Experts are calling this re-entry anxiety.

“Re-entry anxiety is real,” said Dr. Smith.

For many, that anxiety will surface when we see crowds or think about life without masks.

“It's a mix of, like, cautious optimism with not wanting to do too much too soon,” said Knapp.

“You don't want to exasperate that by making them feel uncomfortable about doing something that they're really not prepared to do,” said Dr. Smith of being more careful of people’s personal boundaries during this period of re-opening.

Knapp feels that pressure of wanting to get his old life back, but he isn’t ready just yet.

“I haven't eaten inside a restaurant since March,” he said. “Yeah, I'd love to go to a Braves game, but I love my safety more.”

He said living in Georgia, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates, doesn’t help him feel more comfortable going out into crowded spaces. But through therapy, he’s learned to embrace the journey to normalcy, whatever that will look like, by quieting those anxious, harmful thoughts as much as he can.

“They're still there, and it's certainly scary at times,” said Knapp. “And then, there's times where they come in, and I'm able to just completely ignore them and brush them off.”

Knapp is just hoping his struggle, one he posted about publicly on social media, will encourage someone else who is feeling the same way to ask for help. He wanted people to know what he went through to make sure no one else feeling similar would struggle alone.

“There's no shame in it. There's no fear in it,” said Knapp.

“There's always a silver lining,” said Dr. Smith. “We are normalizing mental health and we're beginning to talk about things that we didn't talk about before."

Dr. Smith and Knapp both hope these conversations will be had in more homes across the country to help to get back to life as we knew it and feel more like it should.