Coping with the “Reintegration Anxiety”

It took a pandemic for people to wake up and pay attention to their mental health. And as the world reopens, Psychologist Shobhika Jaju explores a phenomenon that many people are now struggling with, that is, reintegration anxiety.

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The human mind has a tendency to get conditioned, that is get used to things; people, situations, and the list goes on. Early psychological literature often talks about the concept of “conditioning”, which was originally given by behaviourist, Pavlov. If you have ever heard about an experiment where a dog would start salivating for food, at the ring of a bell, you know what I am talking about. Look at your own daily schedules; do you feel hungry at almost the same time every day or perhaps feel sleepy at a set bedtime?

Used to our advantage, this tendency to get conditioned in the presence of reinforcement from our environment, is a great tool for inculcating new habits, building resilience, etc. But unfortunately, because it is an inherent tendency we are talking about, there is also the possibility of us getting conditioned to stimulus around us, unintentionally. And that is precisely the reason, why we are now noticing an increase in the phenomenon of “reintegration anxiety”.

Countless number of psychological studies have reported the spike in generalized and specific anxiety conditions in India, across age groups. Reintegration anxiety, commonly referred to as reentry anxiety, is by itself not a separate diagnostic category in the mental health manuals. It is, however, a type of anxiety which stems from excessive worry about possible negative consequences, that comes with having to get back to the “normal” life. It is kind of similar to social anxiety; however, the catch is that people who have never shown any symptoms of anxiety are also now extremely distressed because of the possibility of going back to workplaces, socializing, having guests over, and so on. When the social restrictions were first announced, it led to a lot of anxiety but as we got conditioned to living indoors, a lot of people are showing anxiety symptoms at the prospect of re-socializing and re-engaging with the world.

So, how do you know if you are experiencing the reintegration anxiety? Very simply, think of a social situation that you have to be a part of over the coming days, and ask yourself if you are looking forward to it, or are dreading the thought of going out and interacting with people. Are there thoughts about how will people judge you or what will others think about you? Is there any negative thinking about how you have changed over the past many months and thus you feel less confident heading out? These thoughts accompanied by any physical manifestations of anxiety and the emotion itself, are a sign that the discomfort which you are experiencing at the mere thought of going out, is more than just discomfort. Some common ways in which the reintegration anxiety manifests itself includes social withdrawal, tendency to decline all social invitations, absenteeism from work/college/school, irritability/anger, appetite and sleep disturbances, lack of interest in doing things, etc.

Well, the good news is that all anxieties can be dealt with in a healthy manner. Remember, what I said about our minds getting conditioned at the start of this article? While you may have got conditioned to staying indoors, you can very well get reconditioned to socializing and engaging with the world too. It’s the initial few times when you are heading out, which will seem like the most difficult to carry on with.

Here is how to cope; in each new situation, start by asking yourself, “What is it that I am afraid of the most?” And then challenge the reasons which your anxiety is presenting to you for staying indoors and cancelling that social commitment. You will be surprised to know that most of the reasons have no logical evidence to support it. Another good strategy will be to start small. Instead of going to a social gathering of a 100 people as your first social commitment, plan a small outing with just a couple of friends to a café nearby, and slowly challenge your comfort zone. Make a list of things you are looking forward to, which you couldn’t do during the lockdown restrictions. Reintroduce these activities slowly, one at a time. Focus on things in your control, to handle the fear of uncertainty which dominates when we are feeling anxious. Living in Goa, we are blessed with enough open & secluded spaces to start venturing out, without feeling the threat of socializing, unless we are absolutely ready.

Most importantly, be compassionate toward yourself and your feelings. Your experiences and feelings are valid, and judging yourself for the same, will only hold you back further. 

Image Credits: Shobhika Jaju & Stock

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