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Closing the Social Distance

After a year spent social distancing, mask wearing and sheltering in place, the prospect of readjusting to in-person social engagements can be a daunting one.

But after a year spent internalizing public health precautions for social distancing and mask-wearing, the prospect of readjusting to in-person social engagements may be a daunting one. For many, it provokes a sense of profound discomfort, apprehension or ambivalence.

“It’s a new version of anxiety,” said Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist in Washington who writes a newsletter about managing the coronavirus crisis. You may discover that your continuing concerns about the virus are colliding with a new set of worries about seeing others more regularly: What am I comfortable with? How do I act? What do I say?

Here’s how some individuals and experts are starting to think about closing the social distance.

If you’re wary of re-entry, begin with a lower-stakes outing. “It’s like little baby steps getting back into it,” said Dr. David Hilden, a Minneapolis-based internist who hosts a weekly radio show during which he answers listeners’ pandemic questions. He’s observed this firsthand: Earlier this month, he met up with a friend to share a beer for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. “Now that we’ve dipped our toe in the water, a lot of Zoom meetings end with, ‘Hey, I think we can get together now,’” he said.

But after 10 minutes, she found even the fantasy versions of these scenarios exhausting. The reality can be, too; she described the sensory overload and disorientation she felt while dining outdoors with a friend for the first time in months. “I think our ability to take inputs has really lowered,” Ms. Juneja said.

There is good news, however: You’ll most likely find it easier to relearn old behaviors than learn entirely new ones. “The key is to not avoid that effort,” Dr. Badre said. “By re-engaging, you will get used to it again.”

Though the past month has seen a spate of reopenings across the country, some scenarios might still set off a siren in your head. And because these facilities are open, doesn’t mean you need to go.

But what if a friend or family member does want to see a movie, or dine out? If you express disagreement over what is safe, you might feel as though you are implying your companions are less responsible or unethical.

A similar situation can play out if you’re confronted with someone whose attitude toward public-health protocols differs from your own. Dr. Sah’s research has shown that when individuals have the opportunity to weigh their decisions in private, they are less likely to experience this anxiety and do something that makes them uncomfortable. She recommended writing down the boundaries that you would like to adhere to and taking time before agreeing to someone else’s plan.

“Assess your own risk level and comfort,” Dr. Sah said, “so you’re very clear about what you would and would not like to do.” This will also provide you with a clear document of how your comfort levels are changing over time as you readjust.

This empathy and candor will also be an asset if you find that your friends and peers have developed the tendency to over share, either out of anxiety or being starved for conversation. (You may be doing it yourself, too.) If a conversation subject makes you uncomfortable or anxious, say so.

“Being really open and direct is the best way,” said Dr. Danesh Alam, a psychiatrist and the medical director of behavior health services at Northwestern Medicine Central Dupage Hospital. Dr. Alam suggested studying up for conversations, preparing some questions and topics in order to chat with more intention and keep things on topic.

It’s OK if you don’t feel ready to see people socially again. Through the challenges of the lockdown period, you may have found that “your mental health is served best when you have time for calm and rest and introspection,” Dr. McBride said.

“If you’re comfortable going to a dinner at a small family restaurant, you can do that,” Dr. Hilden said. “If you want to wait a month or two, that’s OK, too.”

Category: Science

Source: New York Times

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