Right now, gathering with friends might feel exciting—and kind of terrifying.

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Throughout the pandemic, most of us wanted nothing more than for our normal routines to be restored: to be able to do our favorite yoga class in person, meet up with a friend at a restaurant for dinner, go into the office and chat with coworkers next to the coffee maker (OK, maybe not so much for that last one). But it's safe to say that many of us have longed for more human contact during the past year.

Now that the possibility of socializing with people is back on the table—or, at least, becoming more real every day—many are anxious about returning to pre-COVID gatherings. And despite the excitement that comes along with that, there's also a good chance you'll be a little freaked out by all that extra exposure.

Why This Side of the Pandemic Might Feel Even More Stressful , Young female model taking off her mask to prevent contagious diseases
Credit: Adobe Stock - Design: Alex Sandoval

The truth: Those feelings are totally normal, and you should expect that it might take some time to re-adjust. "I'm calling it the stranger-danger redux," Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a stress expert and editor of the American Institute of Stress's Contentment Magazine, tells Health. She likens the stress of coming face-to-face with another person post-COVID to that of navigating public places as a little kid. "When you're a toddler and you'd run up to a stranger in the mall, your parents [said]: 'Woah, that's a stranger," Dr. Ackrill says. Now, it's more like "Woah, that's another person—without a mask on."

Over the past year, we've been taught that everyone outside of our bubble—stranger or not—is a potential danger. "Even the people we love are a danger. We've gone back to this 'Whom are we supposed to trust?' [game]—and our brain has been doing this for over a year," says Dr. Ackrill. It seems kind of counterproductive to the whole "getting back to normal thing," but there's a reason—a few actually—as to why so many people are feeling a bit of hesitation. Here's what you need to know about any post-pandemic anxiety you might be feeling—and how you can cope.

It took your brain a while to process wearing a mask—and it'll take it a while to process not wearing one

As restrictions continue to be lifted, thanks to the use of safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, you'll probably find yourself near people outside of your pod, either by necessity (if your employer requires it) or by choice (if you choose to attend a friend's birthday gathering).

In these situations, it might take some time to retrain your brain not to worry about socializing with other unmasked individuals, Chivonna Childs, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Adult Behavioral Health, tells Health. "We've become hyperaware of people around us," Childs says. "We feel like we've become the mask police: we don't know their condition, don't know if they're carriers. We're used to that now."

It took a lot of effort for your brain to adjust to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Ackrill adds, pointing out that you trained yourself to monitor those around you—and are now trying to convince your body that it doesn't need to worry about that anymore. "That's a lot of training for the brain—we've really made a habit of considering other human beings a danger," Dr. Ackrill says.

We still don't know what's considered "safe" in the post-COVID world yet

It may seem like we've been dealing with COVID-19 forever, but it's still a very new virus—it's only been around for less than two years—and health experts are still trying to fully figure it out, even as the US continues the reopening process.

While the CDC has announced that it's fine for fully vaccinated individuals to go mask-free both outside and indoors, there's still many questions around how, or if, unvaccinated individuals will be differentiated—and how risky it is to simply take people at their word when they say they're vaccinated.

While experts are doing all they can to sort out how we can safely proceed, the uncertainty of the present moment might be adding to your anxiety about reentering society. "It's not even black-and-white yet what's safe—there's a lot of confusion," Dr. Ackrill says. This can have a real impact on your mental health, Shannon O'Neill, PsyD, an assistant professor of psychiatry, tells Health: "Uncertainty and not knowing what to expect can fuel anticipatory anxiety.

You may want to dismiss the trauma and grief you've experienced over the last year—don't do that

Think back to where we were at this time a year ago: there were no approved vaccines, and the death toll from COVID-19 in the US was climbing at a horrifying rate. It was extremely risky to enter public spaces that didn't require masks, and health experts were advising everyone to avoid making contact with anyone outside of their household. Now, most adults in the US have been offered a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, deaths from severe COVID are way down, and many people are able to see those outside of their immediate family without worry.

It's good news, of course, but it can be difficult to reconcile the current reality with what we grew accustomed to. "There's so many levels to this," Dr. Ackrill says. "We've witnessed grief; some people have felt it firsthand. There's a little bit of trepidation." She explains that we might feel hesitant to embrace the new post-vaccine reality, for fear that the suffering during the past year will lose meaning: "Does that mean all of this didn't mean anything? We didn't have a sense of closure, [and] our brains want things to mean something."

Childs echoes this, saying that the residual emotions of the pandemic aren't any less serious than the anxiety associated with a diagnosable mental health condition: "The trauma from being in COVID—it's really scary, and I kind of liken it to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

Among the emotions one might feel while reflecting on the tragedies of the last year is survivor's guilt, Childs adds. "That can be survivor's guilt not only in terms of someone lost their life, [but] someone lot their job, someone lost their house and I didn't. How can I be okay when so many people lost so many things? We feel guilty for being okay."

How to cope with the stress and anxiety you might be feeling right now

Needless to say, your brain will probably be processing a lot of feelings the first time you return to the office or head to a large concert or other community gathering—and you shouldn't necessarily ignore them, Dr. Ackrill says: "When you feel these feelings, I think it's really important to name them. [Ask yourself,] what's really going on for me? What do I need?"

After you've acknowledged what you're thinking and feeling, it might be helpful to make solid plans to counter the uncertainty of the present moment. If you're uncomfortable heading into a very large crowd, ask your friend how many people might be at the gathering, so you know whether you'll be comfortable attending. "Know your boundaries [and] limits ahead of time," Dr. O'Neill says. "Ask yourself, what are you willing to tolerate? Is it your group size, mask wearing, amount of time present? Then stick to that plan."

If you're struggling with a lack of closure for everything that's been lost over the past year, take some time to consider what you the pandemic taught you and what lessons you'll be taking away from it. "Take some time to reflect," Dr. Ackrill says. "What do you want it to mean to you? What do you want to take out of this before you enter the world again?" The pandemic, for example, could have taught you that your self-care routine needed some serious tweaking, and it gave you the space and time to make those adjustments in order to lead a healthier lifestyle. Assigning meaning to the suffering of the past year might make it easier to transition into the post-vaccine world, Dr. Ackrill adds.

There are also ways to combat survivor's guilt, especially now that we can more safely congregate with others, Childs says. If you feel guilty about coming through the pandemic relatively unscathed, you can volunteer for charities that help the homeless, or if you're experiencing survivor's guilt because you're alive, you can visit the gravesites of those in your community who lost their life to the virus. "We can have memorials, [and] we can still say our goodbyes," Childs says.

While there may be bumps in the road—each day in a post-COVID-19 society will be different—it might be beneficial to focus on the silver linings of the pandemic when you're feeling overwhelmed, Childs says. "If the pandemic has shown us nothing else: We're resilient," she explains. "Let's carry that forward."

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