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How to fight post-pandemic anxiety after a year indoors

If you’re feeling anxious leaving long-term isolated conditions, try leaning into this one mindset.

How to fight post-pandemic anxiety after a year indoors
[Source images: Ponomariova_Maria/iStock; Joyous Chan /Unsplash]
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It feels particularly fitting that vaccines are finally being distributed and quarantine is slowly lifting in the U.S. during the spring season. The time of budding flowers and various organisms emerging from hibernation is associated with regeneration and renewal.

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After a significant amount of time of pandemic-related upheaval and suffering, a palpable sense of hope is budding through to greet us again.

However, if you are feeling anxious, stagnant, or socially absent coming out of the gate, you are certainly not alone in this pandemic paradox. The extreme transition that many of us experienced in the past year from having a thriving, busy social and professional life—to in some circumstances complete isolation—has lasting consequences on our physical and mental health. Even individuals who are normally considered extroverted can feel as if they have become introverts over the past year, and are experiencing fears on returning to the ebb and flow of their lives prior to quarantine.

The solution is simpler (and more enjoyable) than you may think: leaning into hope and anticipation is a proven way to get back on track. Hope is not the unfounded assumption that a positive outcome is inevitable. Instead, it is the belief and willpower that we have a pathway to our desired outcome. Embracing this essential state of mind is a necessary ingredient for overcoming adversity, and demonstrates the belief that there is the possibility of a better future. With hope comes an array of cognitive benefits that can help catalyze positive action—especially beneficial as lockdown lifts and we begin to re-enter society.

Psychological researchers have hypothesized that hope may be the most important feeling state for well-being with significant behavioral consequences. The cognitions associated with hope—so, how you think, feel and behave when hopeful—are pathways to motivate, pursue and achieve desired goals. In fact, hope may even be a better predictor of success than intelligence or ability alone.

This is because hopeful people engage in more of something called “pathway thinking,” in which they are able to imagine and execute a variety of different ways to work towards and reach a chosen goal. Because of this, high hope individuals do not react in the same way to life’s inevitable challenges as low hope individuals. Instead, they view obstacles as surmountable barriers to overcome. They then utilize their pathway thoughts to plan alternate routes to their goals, while motivating themselves along the way. Perhaps most importantly, they are largely at peace with not knowing exactly how it is all going to turn out. Individuals who are hopeful and successful strike a careful balance of anticipating a positive outcome, without obsessing over the future.

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In addition to helping set loftier goals (and increasing the chances of realizing them), studies have found that having hope has holistic benefits for mind and body. People who have significant levels of hope are more physically healthy and less susceptible to disease, and have even been shown to live longer. Research also indicates hope is positively correlated with self-esteem and healthier relationships.

That said, many of us are grappling with the side effects of a long year enduring the opposite feeling—a loss of hope. This occurs when we cannot picture a desired end to our struggles and lose the motivation for or fear moving forward. Fear keeps us frozen and is the enemy of positive action, preventing us from making progress or even a simple decision. This is all natural; loss aversion is one of the strongest gearings of the brain and explains our tendency to mistrust.

Our survival emotions have a stronger effect on our brain than our attachment emotions, meaning that perceived losses have twice the effect on us psychologically as equivalent gains. Happily, the power is within us to train our brains to devalue these potential losses, clear old patterns and think in new ways. We can actually filter out the unnecessary warning signs that the limbic brain may send to the front of your mind, and in turn, release negative or pessimistic thoughts that keep us stuck.

How do you even start to take on such a subconscious feat? To cultivate a greater sense of hope and optimism, the key is to experience the real thing, which is our greatest teacher. Push your own boundaries, moving yourself out of your comfort zone and off your autopilot more so you get used to taking regular, healthy risks.

For example, if you are experiencing social anxiety leaving lockdown, start to socialize at your own pace and comfort level. Meet up with your trusted inner circle, or ease your way in slowly with an activity that will also make you feel better after, like taking a yoga class or scheduling a haircut.

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With a hopeful outlook, we understand that trying is the best antidote to fear; even failure is just a part of life, especially when you’re on the right track. As the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett advised, in order to succeed one must, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

If you’re not yet vaccinated or not quite ready to jump back into in-person get-togethers, here are a few techniques you can easily do from home.

  • Try visualization. Having hope is to imagine a positive outcome. Visualization works because there is surprisingly little difference to the brain between experiencing an event directly in the outside world and a strongly imagined vision of the same event, especially paired with action.
  • Brainstorm ideal future outcomes based on your intentions. Create three-four associated personal affirmations. Aim to repeat them mindfully several times a day, and visualize them as true. Examples include, “I am healthy, happy and in control,” “I have landed my dream job,” or “Good people come into my life everyday.”

Conversely, when anxious or fearful thoughts arise, try putting them on trial with these techniques:

  • Instead of indulging them, ask yourself, “What if things work out?” or “What if all my hard work pays off?”
  • Envision the next steps you would take if you knew it would all work out for the best.
  • Reflect on the new wisdom. Journal two-three aspects of your life that you can find to appreciate, despite the circumstances to help reframe your experience. This will show your brain that even what the unthinkable happens, there are lasting gifts to be found in hardship, especially strength and resilience.

As we all enter this new season, remind yourself that you’re not obligated to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or anxiety-ridden. And if you’re struggling to cultivate hope, this is not a personal failure.

But also keep in mind bypassing or avoiding your true feelings—especially the tough ones like anger, grief, anxiety and shame—tends to inevitably prolong suffering. The key, instead, is to feel the full spectrum of your emotions, while embracing a hopeful mindset, so you are making peace with the present and leaving some room for the unknown.

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Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. She is the author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.