Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to deal with anxiety about returning to school or work amid COVID-19

NAIT student counselling and mental health lead addresses apprehensions

There’s a meta aspect to the pandemic that somehow makes it even worse. Not only might we be worried about contracting COVID-19, we may be concerned about other people’s perceptions of the virus and its transmission, and how those views compare to our own.

“Everybody has an opinion about COVID,” says Dr. Tanya Spencer, NAIT student counselling and mental health lead. Debates over vaccines, masks and the like have made the pandemic as polarizing as politics. As a result, for some, “there’s an incredible amount of apprehension about reentering public life.”

This fall at NAIT, Spencer will offer workshops for students and staff to help address that apprehension. At root, the sessions are based on the fact that, “regardless of where someone is on the spectrum of things, we still have to get along.” That is, we need to navigate any disparity between our understanding of life in the time of COVID-19 and someone else’s. And we may need to deal with feelings of being judged for the place we occupy on that spectrum.

Safeguarding our physical health is only one part of the process (at NAIT, that involves wearing a mask and a strong recommendation to get vaccinated). Here, Spencer suggests four strategies for dealing with the social complexities of the pandemic and the impact they can have on our mental health, as our brains resort to ancient coping mechanisms designed to keep us safe under any circumstances, whether we fully understand them or not.

1. Know anxiety can’t be eliminated

anxious man seeing therapist

Anxiety serves a purpose, says Spencer. “Its function is to keep us safe.”

Back when everyone considered a cave to be a good home, “alarm-bell instincts” kept us alive. We avoided threats by anticipating them. These are different today – a virus, for instance, is our primary predator – but the emotions remain. These persisting feelings may also keep us on alert for those who might criticize us for having them at all, leaving us isolated and vulnerable.

“Life is not free of discomfort,” says Spencer. Anxiety cannot be completely eliminated, but it can be managed. “Hands-down, the most popular way to manage or reduce anxiety is to practice relaxation.”

She sees progressive muscle relaxation, designed to ease tension throughout the body, as one “time-tested” method. Meditation is another. Spencer recommends an exercise called “dropping anchor” (see the video below) as a way to steady a mind inundated with waves of worry.


2. Decide how important it is to be “right”

​“Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?” Spencer asks. If you have to shout yourself hoarse to make your take on the pandemic heard – with no guarantee anyone’s listening anyway – it may not be worth the effort.

“How much of your energy do you want to spend feeling worked up about this stuff versus energy you could put into an assignment or your work?”

There are ways to let go of complicated feelings about the current state of the world. One is an exercise Spencer recommends called “leaves on a stream.” Close your eyes and imagine exactly that, as described in the video below, letting each one carry away a thought.


3. Be prepared to reevaluate relationships

​Some points of view may be hard to ignore because of our relationships with the people who have them. Friends, co-workers and even family members may not share your opinions.

Because of that, the pandemic “is a new way to get unpleasantly surprised by the [people] we thought we could count on,” says Spencer.

Identify your values. Are they being challenged in ways you cannot abide?

To respond to those surprises, she invokes the idea of disgust, “the most primal emotion.” It may also be one of the oldest, Spencer adds, in that it was an early mechanism to keep us from consuming rotten and potentially deadly things. Like anxiety, disgust can keep us safe.

But since it might lead to difficult decisions, Spencer recommends introspection before rash action. “Making notes or journalling may help,” she says. Identify your values. Are they being challenged in ways you cannot abide? Or could your standards be modified in a way with which you can be comfortable?

If you do have to make a tough choice for your own well-being, be patient with yourself. “There might be a real period of mourning over it,” says Spencer.

4. Reach out to build your confidence

man wearing face mask

With all of its “fear this” and “don’t believe that” and “that will kill you if you eat it,” the ancient brain can be a bossy, even if well-meaning, guide as you reenter the world during the pandemic. It needn’t – and shouldn’t – be your only confidant.

Once you’re clear about your values, feel free to validate them externally. A conversation with your doctor about the facts and your feelings can help, says Spencer. And social media can be useful too, she adds. There are other voices out there like your own, and listening to them can be a source of comfort and support.

“There’s never been a better time to look for allies,” Spencer says. “Every opinion on the spectrum has a home.”

Banner image by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash


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