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MUSC expert discusses the fear some have of 'returning to normal' as COVID-19 cases drop

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In time for Major League Baseball's Opening Day, The Washington Post and the University of Maryland recently conducted a survey asking this question: "At this time, would you feel comfortable or uncomfortable attending a ticketed sporting event in person?"

Responses varied when certain factors were introduced. Confidence increased, for example, if stadium capacity were to be reduced or if all attendees were required to wear masks. Considerably fewer said they would be comfortable attending if the sporting event was held indoors or if mask-wearing wasn't made mandatory. And as a rule, people who identified as sports fans or who indicated they'd attended some sort of sporting event since 2018 were more inclined to attend another one now. 

But the big takeaway was this: Most people said they were either uncomfortable or unsure given the current circumstances. 

And even when poll respondents were presented with a scenario in which all ticket holders had received the COVID-19 vaccine, only 69 percent said they'd be comfortable attending. 

The results suggest there are a fair number of people who are anxious about "returning to normal" as states increasingly lift restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

And these aren't feelings unique to sporting events. Indoor dining, shopping without a mask on, handshakes and hugs — these are all things, among many others, that millions of people abruptly gave up last year. 

It makes sense that some are anxious about picking them right back up again, said Alexander Busch, a psychologist and the clinical coordinator of the Sleep and Anxiety Treatment and Research Program at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

Some of this anxiety is absolutely legitimate, he said. COVID-19 is still circulating. Cases are increasing in many states. Getting a vaccination doesn't mean you're impervious to the disease, and it remains important to practice certain precautions, such as mask-wearing and maintaining a social distance. 

"Change — even if it’s 'back to normal' or if it is appealing — the change itself can be difficult," Busch said. "There’s going to be some level of anxiety that’s reasonable, understandable, and a lot of us will be experiencing it to some degree." 

That said, it's possible to "go overboard with that cautiousness," he added, leading some people to avoid activities that they could reasonably engage in safely. 

If you find yourself facing this level of anxiety, there are a few steps you can take to tackle it, Busch said. The first is recognizing it and thinking it through.

For example, if you're worried about eating at a restaurant, Busch recommends considering the evidence that doing so would be safe. Are the tables adequately spaced out? Is outdoor seating available? Are customers required to wear masks when they're walking around? 

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Public health data should play a part in the decision-making process, too. In terms of sporting events, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post that fans should consider the level of coronavirus cases where they live before making a decision to attend a local game. 

“It really depends a lot on the level of infection in the community where the ballpark is located," Fauci said. "You’re going to assume that the overwhelming majority of people that are going to show up at the ballpark are from the area where the ballpark is located.”

Taking all of these factors into account is more productive than worrying about the worst-case scenario, Busch explained. 

"Anxiety draws us to the negative," he said. Weighing the actual evidence instead of focusing on the fear "will remind you 'I am capable of this. I can do this. And I’ll make it through and chances are, I’ll be OK.' "

The next step, Busch said, is starting small. 

For example, if you're worried about returning to the office after working from home this past year, Busch suggested tackling the commute first. If possible, don't commit yourself to a full day in the office right away. Walk around. Get a feel for the space. Try to approach your full-time return gradually. 

"No one wants to be thrown into the deep end and told they have to swim," Busch said. 

Finally, he recommends giving it a good, solid try — twice. 

Learn from what happened. Reassess some of the issues you may not have initially considered. Try some deep breathing techniques to work through any lingering anxiety. 

At this point, he said, most people will find themselves fully capable of engaging in whatever activity had caused them worry. For those who can't, though, he suggested reaching out to a network of friends and family or seeking professional help. 

The demand for mental health treatment has spiked during the pandemic, Busch said, and that trend will very likely hold even as the general public resumes life as we used to know it. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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