Great news: As of June 7, The New York Times reports that 64 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. But even as folks get vaccinated, the American Psychological Association recently found that 49 percent of adults feel uncomfortable returning to in-person interactions—even if they’re fully vaccinated. And with more and more places starting to open up, it’s super normal to feel uneasy about the prospect of abandoning the safety of your home bubble and venturing back out into the world. Sound familiar? You might be experiencing Cave Syndrome, a phenomenon that’s making some people hesitant to return to their pre-pandemic lives. Read on for more about this new (though not scientific) paradox, including how to combat post-pandemic anxiety.
What Is Cave Syndrome?
While it isn’t an official psychological diagnosis, cave syndrome is generally characterized by feeling anxious about returning to society after the COVID-19 pandemic, even if you’re fully vaccinated. Its causes vary from person to person, with some folks hesitant to return to their normal lives out of an ongoing fear of the disease and others having grown accustomed to—and even fond of—the solitude of the last 15 months.
Whatever the cause, the proliferation of the syndrome makes sense. The past 15 months have been traumatic. In fact, in May 2020, researchers at the University of British Columbia published a study predicting that an estimated 10 percent of people in the midst of the pandemic will develop COVID stress syndrome after coping with severe psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mood or anxiety disorders. Luckily, there are a number of therapist-approved ways to start easing back into the world, from reminding yourself of all the fun things you used to do to cutting yourself slack.
7 Ways to Cope with Cave Syndrome (and Re-Entry Anxiety in General)
1. Be Patient with Yourself
This is always good advice, but it’s especially crucial right now. Jason Woodrum, ACSW, a therapist at New Method Wellness, reminds us that what we perceive as “normal” isn’t going to come back in a single day. “This will be a gradual process filled with daily reintegration of parts of our lives that haven’t been present for the better part of this year,” he says. If you’re feeling unsure about leaving your comfort zone, start with baby steps and take time to celebrate each and every one, like safely enjoying a drive-in movie or an outdoor meal at a restaurant.
2. Redefine ‘Normal’ as Whatever You’re Comfortable With
Though mandates around social distancing or wearing a mask have started coming to an end in some circumstances, Woodrum tells us that doesn’t mean we should feel uncomfortable holding onto these precautionary measures for longer. “Whatever your boundaries are, discuss them with those around you regularly. People will respect and understand your continued need for safety.” Though you might feel awkward, silly or like you’re overreacting, you know your body and mind best, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do what feels right for you.
3. Stay Informed
When it comes to anxiety about returning to work in an office, knowledge is power, says Dr. Sherry Benton, a psychologist and founder/chief science officer of TAO Connect, a company committed to bringing affordable mental health treatment to people who have had limited access in the past. “Continue to get all the information you can from your company about what precautions they’re taking and how they plan to keep workers safe," she says. "When you’re armed with knowledge that your company is taking the safety of its employees seriously, it can provide you with a sense of relief.” Often, anxiety is worsened by the unknown, so keeping yourself informed is crucial.
4. Remember How Far You’ve Come
“What a year for resilience,” Woodrum says. “As a group and individually, we have shown ourselves to be adaptive in ways we never thought we would have to be over the course of 2020.” He recommends taking the time to look back on how far we’ve come, and the way we’ve made it through during this challenging time. We found toilet paper on largely empty shelves. We figured out creative ways to support our favorite restaurants. We learned how to make sure we’re washing our hands for 20 seconds or longer. We’ve shown a tremendous ability to roll with the punches and get through some really challenging times. Reminding ourselves of this, Woodrum tells us, “creates a foundation of assurance that no matter what comes next, we’ll succeed and achieve throughout that as well.”
5. Hold onto Your New Quarantine Hobbies
Whether you’ve picked up needlepointing or mastered your sourdough technique, Woodrum reminds us that our newfound hobbies have served an essential function in providing safety and comfort during a time when those were in limited supply. Moving forward, any time you’re feeling challenged in work or your personal life, remember the comfort those activities provided over the past months, and use them as self-care techniques moving forward. “Find the time to nurture yourself, and nurture your own needs,” Woodrum stresses. “And whatever you do, don’t feel selfish for needing to do this periodically.”
6. Remember All the Great Things About Your Pre-Pandemic Life
Yes, it can be super stressful to imagine a return to your old life after so long, but there are also plenty of things to look forward to. “When it comes to returning to the workplace, think about the people you’re excited to see, the new pictures you can’t wait to put on your desk or resuming Friday happy hours with your coworkers,” Benton says. “Take time to write down those positive elements so you can revisit that list when you struggle to feel positive.”
7. Allow Yourself to Grieve
It’s been an incredible difficult 15 months, and it’s important to recognize all that you’ve been through. “Grief plays a large role in returning to ‘normal’ everyday life,” Benton tells us. “If you’ve suffered a devastating loss over the past year, allow yourself to grieve; it’s a critical, natural part of healing.” If you experienced loss related to the pandemic, you might feel triggered if someone around you gets a cold or the flu, or angry when you feel like people don’t understand what you’re going through. “It can be very useful to talk to a therapist or counselor to separate grief from personal anxiety, as well as identify the ways you can reduce it so you can get out and function in the world,” she notes. Beyond that, if someone close to you has lost a friend or family member during the pandemic, it’s normal to feel unsure about how you should approach them. Benton stresses that communication is key. “Don’t pretend that it never happened; acknowledge it by telling them that you care and ask what you can do for them. Make sure to check in on them regularly, as their feelings can truly change from moment to moment.”