Returning to Work Post-Pandemic: Coping With Anxiety Disorders

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

With the pandemic guidelines loosening around the country, people are beginning to shut down their home offices and return to their places of employment. Some were dealing with anxiety and panic disorders prior to the pandemic and may wonder if being at home has hindered their recoveries. Others may have developed some sort of anxiety during the pandemic and wonder how they will manage in a traditional work setting.

We want you to know this: (1) this pandemic did not end your recovery journey, but it is part of it, and (2) while you may have some initial difficulties, they are not likely to be long term. Whether you’ve suffered with anxiety before the pandemic or are facing a disorder for the first time, there are ways to cope. Here are some suggestions that will help.

Realize the change could mean a temporary increase in anxiety

Whatever your situation, returning to a conventional work setting after working for over a year at home is a big change. In some ways, you may be looking forward to being around your coworkers again rather than communicating via a video conference. And while there may be some excitement about being in a face-to-face setting, it’s also understandable and likely to have some concerns about how much interaction you can handle right now.

Working with others in person is different from working through a digital medium. There’s no option to shut off the camera or mute the sound for a moment. When you’re in the conference room or gathered in an office for a meeting, your anxiety level may increase a bit. Remind yourself of this: there was some anxiety when the world had to shift to working from home and you were able to move through it. In the same way, you are able to move through the shift back to the office. It will also help to remind yourself that this anxiety won’t last forever.

If affirmations are your preference, try repeating these to yourself:

  • Some days are harder than others. I’m doing my best today. Today, I am okay.

  • I can ride this wave and get back to work.

  • I can handle this.

  • I can feel the fear and do it anyway.

  • I’m not feeling confident, but I’ll still do my best today.

If you liked these neutral affirmations, check out more from Urban Balance:

Have a word with your boss/supervisor in advance

If you have a comfortable relationship with your boss or supervisor, arrange to speak with them before your first day back in the office. You can frame it in ways that acknowledge that you have had challenges and that you are currently engaging in practices to help manage them. If your boss is willing to work cooperatively with you on how to best support your needs, you can create a plan on what to do when your anxiety spikes whether it be taking a break from the next meeting, taking a walk outside the office building, or decompressing in other ways that work best for you. Having a premade plan can position your boss in a way that allows them to discreetly offer support.

However, we are not strangers to the stigma of mental health, especially if you work in a space that is not affirming your identities or needs. So, having this meeting with your boss is totally up to your level of comfort and trust in them. If you don’t perceive your relationship to be one that will support your needs, don’t worry; there are other options like the one below.

Keep your coping arsenal nearby

You probably have more resources for dealing with anxiety than many realize. It may be the medication that your doctor prescribed. Perhaps it’s the breathing exercises that a counselor taught you. And if you don’t have access to either of these resources, we’ve got you covered. Remember, anxiety is rooted in future-oriented thoughts, so engaging in grounding skills that bring us to the present moment can help us remind ourselves that we are safe and not in danger. Try out some of the following and see what works for you:

  • Engage your five senses. Look around you and name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. It really helps to whisper these things out loud if you’re in a space where you can do so.

  • Focus on your breathing. Remember the number 4. Inhale for four steady counts, hold your breath for four steady counts, exhale for four steady counts, hold four four steady counts, and repeat as necessary.

  • Touch a textured surface. This is solely engaging your sense of touch. Try something that has a unique texture like a patterned pillow, the rubber grip of a pen, or the mesh lining on your lunchbox. Focus on the sensation and try to describe what it feels like to yourself.

  • Create a list of a certain category. Whether it be types of cars, cheeses, plants, or cartoon show characters, start naming them to yourself.

  • Give yourself permission to step out of the room. A workspace may not feel like a safe place to experience an anxiety or panic attack. You may feel obligated to stick around and finish your work tasks, but it can do more harm than good if you’re sacrificing your own needs to do so. You have a right to find a space that feels safe for you, whether it be just outside the building with fresh air, in the bathroom, in the break room, or just away from others, give yourself time to do so.

  • Give yourself a self-compassion break. Anxiety is a moment of suffering that you can feel isolating and overwhelming, but you’re not the only one who goes through it. Follow the steps from Dr. Kristen Neff and say these three things to yourself: (1) This is a moment of suffering, (2) Suffering is a part of life, and (3) May I be kind to myself.

Connect with loved ones

Like we said earlier, experiencing anxiety can be isolating and overwhelming. The bittersweet part of all of this is that you’re not the only one facing that transition back to the in-person work world. Talking with someone you love and trust about your concerns can help with decompressing and talking out your worries, especially when you experience them as a good listener. It may also help if they have shared identities as you or who are in community with you.

Being vulnerable about anxiety, and really anything about mental health, can feel anxiety-provoking in and of itself. We recognize that this is the case and encourage you to reach out to someone who feels like a safe person to have these conversations with. You deserve to have a person who will sit in the feelings with you and who won’t offer any unsolicited advice. It’s okay to state your needs clearly and give back to them when you also have the capacity to do so.

Lastly, be gentle with yourself

The global COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. All of us are navigating this new terrain together and it will require us to be gentle when we speak to ourselves. Huge changes come over time, and all of us will be making mistakes every now and then. If you have a self-critical voice that likes to pop up when things don’t meet your expectations, pause and repeat the affirmations we mentioned earlier or give yourself that self-compassion break. You are human, and you deserve to let yourself be human.

If you’re ready to take a step in the realm of therapy, Cultured Space’s clinicians are here to help you. We are aware of the incoming transition to in-person life as society begins to open up and want to provide you with a safe space to process those feelings and come up with tools to best support your coping with the change. All of this will be done in ways that are identity-affirming and nonjudgmental, as we see your humanness and honor every part of you.

When you’re ready, we’ll be here.