Dreading Going Back to ‘Normal’? Reentry Fear Is Real

An introvert with reentry fear

Reentry fear is the dread of having to rejoin a noisy, social world that didn’t work well for introverts to begin with.

The pandemic seems like it’s reaching its end, hooray! Oh wait — does that mean I’m going to have to… go back into the real world again? See people? Maybe even… socialize? 

Oh… um… yikes. 

After spending over a year in lockdown, just the thought of leaving the house — let alone throwing ourselves back into social situations — can be a particular source of stress. This may be especially true for us introverts, who feel nervous or drained around people to begin with. Maybe you feel like you’re the odd one out experiencing this, or harboring a secret desire for some of the lockdown measures to stay in place. 

But if you feel like this, you’re not alone. In fact, as more and more people become vaccinated and it gets safer for more businesses to open and for more people to gather in groups, many people are experiencing a new phenomenon: reentry fear.

What Is Reentry Fear?

According to psychologists, “reentry fear” is the fear that stems from rejoining society after having spent the last year in a socially distanced lockdown. It’s not the fear of the virus itself: It’s the impending dread stemming from having to let go of social distancing measures and begin to reintegrate into a noisy, social world. Both introverts and extroverts can experience it, but reentry fear may be even more intense for us “quiet ones,” many of whom enjoyed the slower pace of life during lockdown.

Reentry fear can manifest as worries about going back to in-person work or school, having to interact with people again and, even more so, the fear of having to break out of the introvert caves and routines we’ve made for ourselves this past year. This fear can come and go in waves: One minute, you’re looking forward to hugging a family member, and the next, the thought of leaving the house to see someone makes you feel nauseated. It was an adjustment to adapt to pandemic-style existence, and it’s certainly going to be an adjustment to adapt back to a post-COVID-19 world.. and for some, these adjustments are sparking more fear than joy.

For many of us, isolating ourselves in our wonderful introvert brains gave us a surprising chance to thrive.

How Does Reentry Fear Affect Introverts in Particular?

Suffice it to say, the pre-pandemic world of noisy workspaces, busy transportation, and the popular definition of “fun” being terrifyingly large gatherings wasn’t working all that well for your typical introvert. While of course no one wanted a pandemic to hit, some of the social distancing measures put in place to flatten the curve actually started to shape a world that better fit introverts’ needs, from working from home to gathering only with a few people to creating extra personal space in public. 

And, after a quick adjustment period, many introverts like me have gotten comfortable in their stay-at-home routines. I, for one, even felt that my stress and anxiety levels lowered due to social distancing, and my introvert friends said the same.

For many of us, isolating ourselves in our wonderful introvert brains gave us a surprising chance to thrive in ways we might never have imagined: spending uninterrupted time in deep focus, finally writing that novel, or increased productivity. While many people are rejoicing at the newfound chance to safely visit friends, go to restaurants, and work in a crowded office again, introverts may feel that this sense of self, and the accomplishments we have been able to cultivate, are now threatened. So as far as reentry fear goes, it’s the fear of having to go back to a world that we now realize hadn’t actually been working for us.

How Can Introverts Cope With Reentry Fear?  

In some ways, I felt like I was more equipped for life during a pandemic than I ever was for life in a non-pandemic, extroverted world — and other introverts share a similar sentiment. However, while no one knows exactly how the world will be post-pandemic, introverts do know that we are resilient: We found ways to cope with challenges before and during the pandemic, and we will continue to do so in its aftermath.

It helps to remember that you’re not obligated to start crowding into busy restaurants, public transportation, or concert venues right away just because it’s safe to do so. Psychologist and certified hypnotherapist Dr. Nancy Irwin recommends starting slow. “You may want to ease into it… baby steps,” she says.

Therapist Katie Dimple Manning, LMSW, also recommends not overdoing it, and advocating for yourself. “Whatever your social stamina was pre-pandemic has likely diminished after spending a year-plus away from others,” she says. “Be sure to schedule yourself plenty of alone time between interactions with others as you work your way back to your baseline energy level for social interaction.”

The new world we’re rejoining will undoubtedly be strange — but talking about it can help. Offering some practices introverts can use to manage reentry fear, Dr. Irwin suggests using a sense of humor. “It is OK to acknowledge the elephant in the room,” she said. “We are all out of shape with our social skills, so find your own words to use to preface any conversations with an acknowledgment (and a smile!) of the awkwardness regarding [speaking face-to-face with a real humanoid again].”

She said you may be surprised at how this breaks the ice and sets you free — and how others may feel the same way. “Most people are compassionate, and sense this anyway; so why not go ahead and admit how weird this feels without blaming yourself; validate the awkwardness/foreign feeling of the situation without personalizing it,” she says. “This is sufficiently dissociating from your pain in a healthy way. Ninety-nine times out of 100, this breaks the ice.”

You’re Not Alone in Your Reentry Fear

People naturally get nervous about new experiences or things we can’t predict; it’s human nature. But remembering that the strangeness of reentering the world isn’t anything you did — it’s just a strange situation we’re all a part of — can help you feel better about it. Even before the pandemic, I wasn’t a huge fan of big parties — what if awkward ole’ me said or did something strange?

However, awkwardness regarding my newfound social life is apparently becoming a more universal theme. “Even the most gregarious extroverts are going to experience some clunkiness while socializing in a post-pandemic world,” said Manning. “The rules of social engagement are simply not the same as they were before, and after so much time apart, many of us are rusty.” 

So, remember, you’re not alone! Introverts often feel like we’re alone in trying to sift through the challenges of spending time with other people, but now, it’s something everyone will need to learn to do — although our overthinking tendencies can make it harder for us. “If you’re the type to lie awake at night ruminating on every social misstep, give yourself some grace,” says Manning. “Remember that we are all going through this awkward transition back to in-person life together. In addition, try to keep in mind that you are more likely to notice perceived or real mistakes you make than others are.”

For those of us who had an easy time slipping into social distancing, it’s helpful to have a reminder that we don’t have to change ourselves to try to fit into a world that isn’t designed for introverts. Manning reminds introverts that they can advocate for themselves. “Maybe something this pandemic taught you is that you actually like meeting over Zoom, or in very small gatherings, better than in person or in large groups,” she says. “If that’s the case, you don’t have to abandon your entire pandemic way of socializing just because the pandemic ends.” Instead, empower yourself to ask for what you need. She says this might sound like, “I’m so excited to see you! Going to a restaurant sounds a little overstimulating for me at this point. Would you be open to coming over here?”

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Post-Pandemic, Continue to Adapt Your World to Your Needs

Just like there were ways for introverts to adjust to the busy, pre-pandemic world — such as flipping weekdays and weekends — introverts are nothing if not resilient, innovative, and resourceful. And, post-pandemic, we will continue to use our skills to adapt our world to our needs.

Writing, too, can be a powerful coping skill, particularly for introverts who find writing easier than speaking. The night before seeing people, write out how you ideally and realistically wish to feel and engage, Dr. Irwin suggests. “You might be surprised how the reality matches your vision,” she said.

Introverts can also gain a lot from therapy — and even more so when faced with newly stressful events, such as reentry. Dr. Irwin describes how a good therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or a certified hypnotherapist can train you on how to manage your thoughts, which drive your feelings. Reach out for support ”whenever you feel ready,” although it may be best to have 3-5 sessions before you start socializing again. “[That way], you’ll give yourself time to learn thought management for feeling calm and comfortable, and even excited around others,” she says.

And grow, we will: When faced with challenges, introverts have succeeded before, and will continue to do so. Manning says that practicing acceptance of the unknown can benefit us as we deal with the new post-pandemic world. “Try to carry in mind the idea that you can’t know what to expect, and that is OK,” she says. “Things may not be ideal, but you are strong and you can survive being in an unknown situation.”

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