OPEN MIND: Return anxiety

The world is slowly and cautiously coming out of the shadows caused by the social lockdowns of COVID-19. 

Many people have had their two vaccines. Businesses are opening up again. Schools and offices have students and workers returning. However, many of the seniors I work with have expressed some concerns or outright anxiety about returning to community norms. 

When I shared this with community partners at a virtual meeting, a representative from the school board said that some of the youth she works with are feeling the same anxiety. Another person spoke up with her own concerns about returning to the workplace. After being isolated in her home office for the past year and a half, she has learned that she prefers to work from home where she is more productive and efficient.

It appears that this return anxiety or re-entry anxiety is affecting people of all ages and all areas of their lives.  There was much stress and anxiety as we got used to the concept of “lockdown.”  We adjusted to living with rules around social gatherings, wearing masks, sanitizing everywhere and working and connecting over virtual platforms. It makes sense that it will also be a process for us to readjust to this new return phase.

Initially, everyone reacted to COVID-19 differently. We had our own personal response to the limits placed on us. We had various responses to being vaccinated. Now, it is important to remember that everyone will accept, welcome and work within new rules at their own pace and comfort level. 

There may be differences between yourself and others. I know some seniors who did not stick their heads out of their homes even once since the pandemic started and now are very concerned about even venturing out to the store independently or seeing a neighbour. 

Some students learned to work over a virtual platform so easily and well that returning to the pressures of socializing at school might seem overwhelming. Some people have been so distressed about being isolated that they welcome this new sense of reconnection and freedom with relief and enthusiasm. We are not all in the same emotional place and need to respect that.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada ( has created a website about how to manage return anxiety. They advise all to follow public health guidelines and to know the rules for the situation you are entering. 

Businesses are posting their standards on websites and you can always call ahead to find out what precautions are in place before visiting a store, business or restaurant.  Schools post on their websites and are communicating with families about expectations.  Seniors centres also post publicly and will respond to phone calls and inquiries.

If you have anxiety it is recommended to try a gradual exposure to the situation you are returning to. Short visits at a time will help you re-adjust to your routine and location. Use whatever stress reduction techniques have worked for you in the past. Mindfulness of how the situation evokes feelings, awareness of breathing and muscle relaxation can help you cope.

Wellness Together Canada ( has developed a portal as a good resource to help navigate your feelings. If symptoms of anxiety persist or you notice a significant change in your wellbeing please contact your doctor or mental health professional.  Also, CMHA’s HERE 24/7, mental health and addictions support and crisis line, is available to help and you can call them at 1-844-437-3247.

Return anxiety, however it may look for now, will ease over time.  We can practice being and feeling safe in these, once usual situations. Perhaps the benefits will be having the opportunity to strike a balance between home, work, school and community life. Yes, we are optimists.

As we find a re-entry pace that is right for us, remember to be kind to ourselves and others as we ride this next phase of the pandemic.

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Paula Frappier is an occupational therapist and educator coordinator at Homewood Health Centre, CMHA. Elaine Griffin is a pyschogeriatric resource consultant with the Alzheimer Society of Dufferin County.

The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Paula Frappier and Elaine Griffin