Child greeting adult

After limited in-person gatherings, you may feel ready to reunite with your social circle but also anxious to do so.

“Name the 900-pound gorilla in the room: It’s COVID-19 that makes you feel uncomfortable,” says Philip Farley, MD, psychiatrist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Mental Health Crisis Clinics. “Trying to hide the gorilla isn’t going to work.” 

Here are his tips to manage anxiety without alienating family and friends.

Acknowledge and Respect Your Needs

You may feel conflicted—especially if you’re a people pleaser.

According to Dr. Farley, don’t accept invites to avoid hurting someone’s feelings at the expense of your own. “Your concerns are valid. Anxiety is no fun, and to go through it needlessly is horrible,” says Dr. Farley.  “Your health—both physical and mental—matter.”

Rather than agonize each time someone asks you to join them, decide in advance what measures make you feel safe. That may mean you’ll only hang with others outdoors, only hug those in masks and only visit family, the fully vaccinated or groups of a certain size.

Or you might decide to be the host because then you can set the rules and ask that guests be masked and have had booster shots since COVID-19 is still prevalent.

Be Brief, Be Kind, Be Firm

Starting phrases with “I” instead of “you” can make others more comfortable. “The approach of ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ removes the sting,” he says.

Refrain from over explaining your choices. There’s no need to elaborate.

“You can simply say, ‘I’m avoiding in-person activities because I or a family member have a condition that puts us at high risk for complications from COVID-19,’” he says.

“Don’t just say you have other plans,” Dr. Farley says. “They may change the date to accommodate you and then you’re stuck.”

You could offer an alternative activity, such as meeting one-on-one at another time or connecting outdoors or on Zoom.

“Should you accept an invite, and someone encroaches your space, you have the right to say, ‘I’m more comfortable if we stand farther apart,’” says Dr. Farley.

“And if you feel awkward being the only one wearing a mask, you can say, ‘It’s good to see you. Please forgive me for wearing a mask. I’m uncomfortable without one,’” adds Dr. Farley.

Then shift the spotlight to the other person by asking about his or her life, Dr. Farley suggests.

Before accepting an invite, you have the right to ask whether hosts and their guests have been fully vaccinated or have tested negative for SARS-CoV-2, he says. But you don’t have the right to dictate their boundaries, just as they have no right to set yours.

If someone gives you a hard time, Dr. Farley suggests saying:  “I feel I’m not being heard, and it hurts my feelings. Can we talk about it?”

If you’re nervous about saying the wrong thing, rehearse for various scenarios, including if your requests are ignored, he says.

Open Up Gradually

Keep up with the news so you’ll know when COVID-19 rates are low. When you decide to re-enter the social whirl, start slowly and reflect afterward how you felt.

“If anxiety continues to be overwhelming, you might consider self-help or therapy,” Dr. Farley says. “It may take time, but your world will return to normal.”

For more information on COVID-19 precautions, click here

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