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9 anxiety-inducing social interactions as the world reopens

CNN logo CNN 3/14/2021 Story by Kristen Rogers and Ada Wood, CNN. Illustrations by Alberto Mier, CNN
a drawing of a person © Alberto Mier/CNN Illustration

What was nice about the Before Times was that, for most people, social interactions and outings could be carefree. We miss them, and that's a big reason why we long for the pandemic to end. But when life stabilizes in the new, new normal, how will we really feel about resuming activities we used to do — like dining out or shaking hands?

The world isn't fully safe yet, but vaccinated people whose states have reopened to some extent may find themselves in a strange, nerve-wracking environment.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder and cleaning rituals, trauma, or anxiety disorders may have an especially difficult time reacclimating.

"What was familiar no longer seems as familiar," said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association. "For close to a year now, we've had messages of not being with others, to be distant ... then the idea that, 'Oh, there's ways that we can be with others and it's OK' — that's new information to reconcile. So, it's understandable that it feels different, at least, if not anxiety-provoking or stressful."

Anxiety can serve as a warning about situations we should pay attention to and be careful with, Bufka added. These are the experiences and places that may cause apprehension as the world reopens, and the tips experts have for handling them.

Eye contact

If you've been social distancing at home, it's likely the only people you have made eye contact with lately are your housemates, cashiers at stores and coworkers through a screen.

In a future without masks, "you might want to look down because you're afraid," said Jane Webber, an assistant professor of counselor education and doctoral program coordinator at Kean University in New Jersey. "Generally, just eye contact and a small smile I call the 'Mona Lisa smile' fills people on the other side with a really nice feeling. They will mirror what you do."

Eye contact is the easiest interaction to start with because it reintroduces us to connecting and showing we care, said Webber, who teaches about trauma, stress and coping skills.

Being among crowds

If you recently have watched a movie filmed before the pandemic, chances are any crowd scenes looked a little peculiar. While we're still far off from large gatherings, you may soon find yourself in increasingly close quarters in grocery stores or on mass transportation.

As a psychologist, Webber has taught students something called a "circle of protective space." She explained, "We'll put a rope or ribbon on the floor and (ask), 'How big of a circle do you need to feel safe in a crowd?' Most people will say, 'I need some space in front of me or on my sides.'"

Once you've decided how much space you need, strategically use your elbows or legs or an object — like a shopping bag or grocery cart — to create it. When you need people to respect your boundaries, kindly tell them, "I just need a little more space."

If you feel panicked, Webber suggested focusing on your breathing and telling yourself, "I'm going to be out of this in a few minutes." Move slowly with the crowd and toward the perimeters until you find space.

READ MORE: 12 lifestyle habits to reduce stress

Shaking hands and hugging

In the pandemic's early days, whether to shake hands was a topic of debate. Now, people mostly just don't. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, strongly advised breaking with this age-old cultural norm — for good. As people meet more frequently, if you encounter someone who extends a hand, the germ factor may cause you to instinctually recoil.

"We're social people," Webber said. "You (might) reach out and then you pull your hand back, and we tell people that's a natural feeling."

If in this moment you feel anxious, waving or bumping elbows instead is OK, Webber said. "Let people know that you're still a little nervous," she added. "By doing that, we've made a connection and they (will) have empathy."

The thought of a hug may be even scarier. All the same, in this year of social distancing, we have become "connection-starved," Webber said. But now still isn't the time to embrace everyone you see. If you or someone outside your household you care about is craving the warmth of affectionate touch, give yourself a "butterfly" hug by wrapping your arms around yourself, tapping each shoulder and "sending it off" to that person. If someone leans in for a hug, kindly express your concerns and initiate a butterfly hug instead.

Flirting or getting asked on a date

If you're getting coffee to go and someone asks you for a date, your brain may be ransacking your memory for how you should respond to such an unfamiliar request.

You can take it slow if you're not ready, Bufka said. Suggest that the two of you start by exchanging phone numbers, then progress with virtual dates.

New intimate relationships

Progressing from flirting to the first date may feel like a lost art. Also, the pandemic may have added some unusual questions to your getting-to-know-you list: Has this person been vaccinated? What does she think of the Covid-19 vaccine and masks? How has she behaved during the pandemic? Is she asymptomatic?

Those questions are actually exactly what you should ask to learn whether your love interest shares your values and whether you want the relationship to go further, Bufka said. Your date's answers would indicate whether you both agree on the level of risk, which precautions to take and which risks are OK.

Approach the conversation gently, humbly and without judgment, Bufka advised. Share which behaviors you've been trying to prioritize during the pandemic and why, and that you're curious about what your date has done. If you're thinking of getting serious, "being able to have a conversation like that is something you'd want to be able to do," Bufka added.

If you're nervous about physical intimacy, acknowledging that is OK. "Like, 'Gosh, it's been a year since I've kissed somebody. I kind of forgot how to do it.' You can take it a little more lighthearted," Bufka said. If you're not yet vaccinated, be honest and say that you don't want to risk her health.

READ MORE: Losing our sense of control during the pandemic

Sharing public spaces

You're sitting on a bench when someone else asks to sit near you. Should you let them? If you don't, what might the other person think of you?

In advance of those situations, you could rehearse saying something like, "'Sorry, I'm still not vaccinated. I'd rather keep my distance,'" Bufka said. If you have been vaccinated, you might ask yourself what your concerns are and whether they're still realistic, according to current health guidance.

Sharing objects to help others

If someone asked you to jump-start his car, you would probably want to help him. But should you, and who will if you don't?

Change the situation to make it more comfortable, said Jacqueline Gollan, who holds two professorships at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago: one in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and another in obstetrics and gynecology.

"Take small steps to manage your anxiety, socialize and mitigate actual risk," Gollan said via email. You could have hand sanitizer and masks readily available for those situations. "If you can't reduce your anxiety, see if you can change your negative predictions by taking your anxiety 'to court.' Evaluate the data that suggests (whether) you have a high likelihood of getting ill while vaccinated."

Cosmetic and spa services

Imagine this: The pandemic is finally over, and you would just love to unwind with a massage. There is only one problem, though: Cosmetic and spa services may not feel so relaxing even on the downhill side of a pandemic.

Asking the business what precautions they have taken — and going somewhere else if they don't meet your standards — is OK.

READ MORE: A year into the pandemic, it's time to take stock of our mental health

Going back to work

Those of us who are still working from home have been able to do our own thing in terms of how and where we work. We haven't had to worry about encountering people and the risk of Covid-19.

When returning to the office, what may be scariest is the loss of control over your health bubble and routine, said Ravi S. Gajendran, Florida International University's chair of the global leadership and management department, and associate professor in the College of Business. You may no longer be used to ironing your clothes, being visible below your shoulders and interacting in person.

What you can do is accept that the transition will be scary, disruptive and slow, Gajendran said. Focus on being prepared for what you can control, which includes carrying hand sanitizer and wearing a mask.

Know that in-office work will likely differ from what it was pre-pandemic, since some companies have implemented seating arrangements or apps for logging Covid-19 symptoms. If your workplace hasn't set clear safety policies, tell your supervisor about your concerns, said Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. An organization that sets standards "creates a shared, common understanding," she added. "And those people who might feel more cautious don't feel weird having to communicate that."

Overall, "cut yourself a break," Gajendran said. Those of us who have been staying in for most of the pandemic may feel strange and anxious about readapting to society, but we're in the same boat and can (safely) help one another through it.

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