Re-entry anxiety: what it is and why you might be feeling it

If the thought of returning to certain aspects of your pre-COVID life is making you uncomfortable, here’s how you can manage your anxieties. 

Regardless of how long it’s been since things reopened and life started getting 'back to normal' around you, if you’re yet to embrace everything from socialising and travelling to commuting on public transport, you might be experiencing something called 're-entry anxiety”.

What's re-entry anxiety?

It’s a concept that dates back to the 1960s, when US psychologists noticed that people returning home after a period of extended travel experience psychological, emotional and cultural challenges around 're-entry'.

In other words, they had trouble readjusting to a life that was once familiar. And it may well help to explain why you might not be feeling ready to quickly jump back into 'normal life'.

Jolanda Jetten, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, says the pandemic has added an extra layer of complicating factors.

“The world is not the same as it was pre-COVID,” she says. “For starters, the fear of contracting COVID is still very present and very real, particularly for some more than others. 

“We also know that Australians’ social lives have taken a big hit during the pandemic and it might take quite a while for that to bounce back. That might be because people have lost touch with social groups, aren’t as used to socialising anymore, or simply because watching Netflix at home night after night has become the new normal. 

“I think it’s also worth remembering that some people’s relationships with friends and family might have changed due to COVID-related issues and differing opinions and, on its own, navigating that can be very challenging.”


Why re-entry might trigger positive changes     

The results of 2021’s Australia Talks National Survey show that more people than ever say they’d be happier if they worked less and spent less time commuting. Analysts say it could reflect the fact that we’ve developed a different perspective because of the pandemic.

Similarly, Jetten believes COVID has caused a lot of people to question what they want out of life, and to look at whether doing some things differently might make them happier. 

She says it's “both potentially exciting but also unsettling – this feeling in the background that things aren’t quite the way you want them to be or, on the other hand, that you’re worried you’ll eventually have to let go of the aspects of your day-to-day life that you perhaps enjoyed when tighter restrictions were in place.”

Tips to overcome re-entry anxiety

If you can relate to anything you’ve just read, rest assured there’s a way forward. These suggestions below might help. 

1. Embrace the opportunity for change. 

Says Jetton: “Looking at the Australia Talks data, you see that there are some significant shifts in what people are saying they want out of life. For example, if you’ve recognised that you want to rethink your work-life balance or what your priorities are, maybe there’s never been a better time to do it.”

2. Trust that it will get better. 

While people with a history of social anxiety may find re-entry particularly challenging, research suggests readjustment is the most common (eventual) outcome. Jetten notes that it will take some people more time than others to readjust, and that it’s important to go at your own pace.

3. Make reconnecting socially a priority.

“Feeling socially connected is one of the more powerful predictors of wellbeing and mental health, so I think it’s really important to try and re-establish these relationships in a way that you feel comfortable with,” she says. “That may mean planning a little more, or doing a bit more goal-setting around how you can feel safe, or simply meeting up with smaller groups of people to begin with if you’re worried about the risk of catching COVID. Making a start is what’s really important.”

4. Know that it’s okay to keep some pandemic habits. 

If you love the fact that you found or made time to meditate, do some yoga or enjoy a home-cooked meal every day when the pandemic was more restrictive, you don’t have to give that up. You can read more about how to maintain your healthy lockdown habits here.

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