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Ask Scary Mommy: I Have To Go Back To The Office Soon – Talk Me Through This Fear

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A woman peeking through a cracked door
Scary Mommy and Frederick Bass/Getty

What do you do when you’re struggling to adjust to our “new normal?” When you’re scared to leave the house at all? How do you emerge from your cocoon in a safe way?

Have your own questions? Email advice@scarymommy.com

Dear Scary Mommy,

My state is easing up on the social distancing measures, and people in my community are starting to emerge from their homes. My husband and I have been fortunate to be able to work from home during this scary time, and we’ve been getting our groceries delivered. For the past two months, we’ve only left our house for short walks along our nearly deserted streets. But my employer is opening up the office soon, so I’ll be asked to work there instead of at home. Neighbors are also starting to go out and about more often with the warmer weather. I want to see friends again, and I’ll need to adjust to this new way of living, but I’m terrified! Part of me wants to just shelter in place until there is a vaccine or it is completely safe to come out, but I know I can’t do that. And I know deep down, I really don’t want to. How do I adjust to this post-pandemic way of living so that I can live my life safely and avoid having a panic attack every time I go to the grocery store?

Oh, friend, I get it. Believe me, I get it. I haven’t been in a public building for two months, and I’ve had very few interactions with another person outside of my immediate family too. The mere thought of going into the grocery store makes me anxious and scared, and many other people feel the same way. So rest assured, you aren’t alone.

That said, it sounds like you do want to figure out how to adjust to this new COVID-19 way of living. And regardless of whether you want to or not, it sounds like you’ll eventually need to come out of your cocoon soon for your job.

The key question in all of this is: how do we live our lives safely?

For the past several weeks, health experts advised – and government officials required — staying at home as much as possible for the safety of ourselves and others. Living our lives safely meant staying at home. But now, some areas of the country are advising social distancing, face masks, and altered ways of living our lives. Assuming that the recommendations for your area are grounded in public health and science (and let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case), you can and should look to the experts for guidance.

But even with the guidance and recommendations of health experts, it can still be difficult to trust that it is safe to go anywhere even with six-feet social distancing and/or face masks. There is actually a psychological reason for this. It’s called “availability bias,” and it’s the reason we give more weight to those events we can immediately recall. Due to the nonstop media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, the dangers surrounding it are almost always what we can immediately recall. Basically, it’s all corona-news all the time.

“People notice more, and hear more, and read more, and interpret that in a threatening way,” Dorothy Frizelle, a consultant clinical health psychologist in the UK, told Quartz.

Additionally, psychologists say that emotion can make it more difficult for us to accurately perceive risk. According to Quartz, “In the case of COVID-19, assessing risk is especially thorny because our objective knowledge of the disease is still evolving.”

There is still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 (the disease the novel coronavirus causes). As we learn more, the health recommendations are evolving as well. It can be hard to stay on top of the information, but the constant inundation and an overload of news and updates about the pandemic can actually become counter-productive. What’s more, health experts also say that it’s important to not let panic and fear control your rational decision-making processes.

I know, I know. Easier said than done. I’m right there with you.

But as we all grapple with this “new normal,” it’s important to listen to trusted experts. And many of those experts are telling us that we can do things like go to the grocery store or visit with friends as long as certain precautions are taken. Face masks are a must. So is staying six feet away from others. Wash your hands and don’t touch public surfaces. (And no, this doesn’t mean you can have that backyard BBQ with guests around the table or hang out at a crowded beach. We aren’t there yet.)

Experts also recommend doing what you can to reassert a sense of control over your fears. That might mean staying informed but avoiding the constant tidal wave of news 24/7. It could mean wearing a face mask even when you are able to socially distance, or discussing alterations to your work environment that promote public health and safety.

Personally, I’ve found that making small, intentional steps to move out of the safe bubble of my home has helped. Last weekend, I picked up food from a local restaurant instead of using delivery. Our family brings masks with us on walks around the neighborhood, even when the sidewalks are empty. And we’ve measured out six feet so that we can visually understand the distance when we pass by others. (I learned that lesson the hard way after someone in our neighborhood stood too close when we stopped to say “hi,” and I panicked.)

So much of this situation feels out of control, and it is important to have a sense of control over your life whenever and wherever you can. If that means continuing to have food delivered even though retail business are open again, do it. If it means saying “no” to a neighbor’s invite to a “socially distanced” front lawn gathering, do so without guilt or apology. If that means telling your boss you want to work from home for a few more weeks, go for it. (Side note: if your employer doesn’t make safety accommodations, you can and should report them to the appropriate authorities.)

And if your anxieties and fears become unmanageable or don’t improve, definitely talk to someone – whether it’s a friend, your spouse, or a professional therapist.

Bottom line: This is uncharted territory for all of us. It is a scary and uncertain time. You aren’t alone in your fears – and you don’t need to be alone as you work to move through them.

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