Navigating anxiety while returning to pre-COVID-19 activities

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A return to normalcy can be easier said than done. Fifteen months of masking, social distancing and - in some cases - isolation can take a toll.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, ABC7's Tanja Babich sat down with infectious disease expert Doctor Robert Citronberg at Yolk restaurant in Marina City to talk about how we might navigate the anxiety some of us may be feeling.

Tanja and Dr. Citronberg are both fully vaccinated and still getting used to indoor dining.

Mental Health Awareness Month: Mental health resources in the Chicago area, Illinois

"It was odd to go back into restaurants," Dr. Citronberg said.

But it is safe once you're two weeks past your last shot and Doctor Citronberg says it's important we start to push our boundaries.

Tanja: "How might it do us more harm to not begin to re-enter society?"

Dr. Citronberg: "The socialization is missing. People have really lost that for over a year. And if we continue to stay away from that, then we will do even more harm."

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ABC7's Tanja Babich sat down with infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Citronberg for guidance on un-masking after being vaccinated.



You would think that we'd be eager to return to some form of normalcy, but fear may hold us back.

"It's hard to just turn on a switch and say, 'OK, we can just go back and do everything normally,'" Dr. Citronberg said.

British researchers are referring to this as COVID Anxiety Syndrome. It's characterized by:
- fear that keeps you from leaving the house
- frequently checking yourself and others for symptoms when you're not in a high-risk scenario (what does this mean? Symptoms of COVID-19 in yourself... or people around you?)
- and avoiding social situations or people

It's possible you didn't realize how COVID-19 would affect your life, post-pandemic until now.

Tanja: "Would you compare it to a trauma? To some traumatizing event?"

Dr. Citronberg: "This has been a massive trauma to most Americans, if you think about how our lives have changed in fourteen or fifteen months."

The key is to start small - like a meal, either indoors or out - if you haven't tried that already - with a friend who is also fully vaccinated.

"Try an activity or two that you haven't been able to do in the last year or fourteen months and see how that goes. What's going to happen, is once you do it, you'll feel more comfortable," Dr. Citronberg said.

Dr. Citronberg says if you are not yet vaccinated, you should continue to mask and practice social distancing. In our next hour, he and I will tackle post-pandemic family gatherings, travel and concerts and festivals.

Crowds like at festivals may induce anxiety, but it's important we revisit the social settings that brought us joy, pre-COVID-19.

So, take comfort in any one of the COVID vaccines that will arm you with immunity while Doctor Robert Citronberg arms you with information.

"Once you're vaccinated, you should really feel very confident," he said. "not that it's impossible to get COVID. It is possible, but it's very, very unlikely. ."

Under new CDC guidance, fully-vaccinated individuals can resume activities they did prior to the pandemic. Indoors, or out. And, unless local guidelines or a business' rules indicate otherwise, you don't have to wear a mask.

Maybe you're eager to entertain again. Doctor Citronberg says that's fine. Even for families with young children.

Tanja: 'You may have all the adults present, fully vaccinated, but if I have three children, and this family has three children who are too young to be vaccinated and we're bringing them into this environment where they're around each other, potentially unmasked, what danger does that pose?"

Dr. Citronberg: "It really doesn't pose any significant danger, unless there's somebody in the household who is at risk for severe complications of COVID."

In which case, the kids can mask up, or you can move outdoors.

"Think about if you were to spray some air freshener in your home," Dr. Citronberg said. "You could smell it in the air for a few minutes afterwards. Those are the aerosols that you smell. But if you spray that same air freshener outdoors, you wouldn't be able to smell it for more than a few seconds.

That helps to explain why you can safely green light local farmer's markets, festivals and open-air concerts.

Next, up? Travel.

Tanja: "Summer vacation is coming. I'm sure families are eager for any kind of change of scenery. Is that safe to do?"

Dr. Citronberg: "Travel has always been safe as long as you are responsible when you travel."

Just keep in mind, the CDC is still recommending mask use on planes, buses and trains.

"As long as everyone is masked and the air is recirculated through HEPA filters, it's pretty safe air to breathe," Dr. Citronberg said.

Once you've reached the point where you feel comfortable unmasking wherever you are, remember that everyone is going to adjust at their own pace. And masking in some situations, may always be a part of our lives.
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