Covid-19 vaccinations are in full swing, and a return to normal life is on the horizon. While it’s a joyous occasion for many, it can be scary and uncomfortable for others.
While “cave syndrome,” isn’t an official psychological diagnosis, it’s a phenomenon affecting people across the country. It’s characterized by feeling anxious or afraid about a return to society, even if you’re fully vaccinated.
These feelings are natural. Afterall, the past year has wreaked havoc on our emotional lives. Behavior that is not natural for humans—like isolation, not touching, social distancing, and masking—had to be learned and practiced for more than a year. As a result, a certain comfort developed.
Now, nearly half of adults — 49 percent — say they’re uneasy about re-adjusting to in-person interactions.
The good news is that we learned all of these “new” pandemic-related habits, and we can unlearn them too. It’s all about taking small steps.
Your first step is to recognize you’re struggling and to accept it. You’re not alone here. Once that’s done, you can figure out ways to address it on your own terms. Try some of these tips to get started:
Take it slow: Choose one activity—solo or with one other person—and give it a try. Maybe it’s going for a hike or grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend. Repeat that single activity several times until you’re comfortable. And, you can start off wearing your mask (even when guidelines say mask-free) during the activity, then take it off after a few experiences. Give yourself permission to ease into your new habits slowly.
Don’t compete: Do what feels right for you. You don’t need to keep up with other friends and family members who think you should be “doing more.” Be confident in moving at your own pace. Everyone will understand and respect your point of view!
Stay in your comfort zone: There’s no need to push too hard to be “normal.” If you’d like to meet a friend for lunch but are wary, choose an outdoor restaurant with a lot of space between tables, and go at an “off” time, like 3 p.m. It’s important to be comfortable on your own terms to be able to progress.
Evaluate your current risks: If you have a chronic illness and were already more cautious when choosing your activities, keep that in mind when selecting new post-pandemic activities. To get started, meet one vaccinated friend and go for a walk, without masks, in a large park or uncrowded outdoor area. And talk to your doctor for the best guidance for your own dos and don’ts.
Stay informed: Education is powerful, and it’s important to have the most up-to-date information, especially with guidelines updating so frequently. Look for valid, evidence-based news medical center sites.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Reach out for support if you can’t overcome these uncomfortable feelings. This is a big transition after more than a year, and you deserve an enjoyable quality of life. While talking to a friend or family member is a start, you might need the professional help of a licensed mental health specialist. Remember that reaching out for help is a sign of great strength, not weakness. Re-entry is a marathon, not a sprint, and we all need support along the way.
Madelyn Fernstrom is the NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.