In this latest wave of uncertainty around Covid-19, the Delta variant and breakthrough infections have complicated plans for a smooth return to the physical workplace, reigniting concerns over safety, even among vaccinated workers.
For those who developed a mental health condition over the course of the pandemic, or whose existing disorders became exacerbated after a prolonged period of fear and isolation, working from home may have offered a refuge. The coping mechanisms many have cultivated — stepping out for air to soothe a panic attack, practicing a quick meditation to calm racing thoughts — will be harder to carry out under the fluorescent lights of an open-plan office.
We spoke to experts about ways to potentially ease anxiety as some workers head back to their desks.
After a year and a half of split-screen meetings and a morning commute from the bed to the kitchen, getting back to the physical office will likely be a big adjustment for everyone. Disruption fuels stress, mental health experts said, and the shift back to the physical work space presents yet another big transition.
“Our brains don’t like uncertainty,” said Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and author of “Unwinding Anxiety.” The routines that many of us developed while working from home — a morning walk, an afternoon cup of tea, cooking lunch — offered a cobbled-together sense of certainty, he said, even throughout the worst of the pandemic. In the office, workers have less control. “Fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety,” he said.
It’s important to identify which elements of coming back to the office you’re afraid of. If you’re stressed about taking public transportation, for example, leading up to your return-to-office date, it might help to “rehearse” part of your commute, said Dr. Franklin Schneier, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a psychiatry lecturer at Columbia University Medical Center. Try taking the subway for a few stops, or heading to the neighborhood around your office building and walking around to re-acclimate yourself.
Overall, incorporating self-care practices like exercising, getting enough sleep and limiting alcohol consumption can also help leading up to the return date, said Dr. Joe Bienvenu, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
If you expect to experience symptoms like panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks or general anxiety at work, have some coping strategies ready to go ahead of time.
These tools shouldn’t be complicated or involve too many steps that you need to remember, Dr. Brewer said. You can keep a sticky note at your desk that lists your coping mechanisms. He recommends a simple “five-finger breathing” routine to address anxiety: Hold one hand in front of you, with your fingers spread out. Trace the outside of your entire hand with the index finger on your other hand, taking your time, and breathing in when you trace up a finger, then out when you trace down. This exercise helps ground people in their direct physical experience, while slowing down their breathing, he said. It’s also quick and discreet.
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