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Therapists share how to manage anxiety over returning to work

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The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed daily life around the world. The virus's ongoing health threat, new levels of financial uncertainty and long stretches of recommended social isolation have, for many, resulted in unprecedented levels of stress and exacerbated existing mental health conditions. A Pew survey from May found that one-third of Americans reported experiencing high levels of psychological distress since the start of the pandemic. 

Now, much of America is testing statewide reopening strategies to varying degrees of success. As some businesses reopen and people get called back to work, while others slow or reverse their plans altogether, CNBC Make It spoke with psychologists for tips on how to manage anxiety when returning to work and public life.

Identify your feelings of anxiety

The first step to managing anxiety is to recognize how you react when you're psychologically distressed. Anxiety is how the body reacts to the threat of danger and can show up physically as shallow breathing, tightness in your chest, restlessness, an upset stomach, headaches or neck and shoulder pain. Once you've identified your reaction, practice ways to ease the physical symptoms of your anxiety, says Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, a therapy resource site.

For example, if you realize you react to stress by clenching your jaw and your breath becomes labored, you may learn to actively relax, stretch and practice deep breathing exercises when you notice these things happening in your body. More long-term, you may take up a mindfulness or meditation practice to ground yourself to take control of anxious thoughts.

In addition to finding ways to deal with the physical symptoms of anxiety, note the environmental triggers that are causing your stress, says Asha Tarry, an author, community mental health advocate, psychotherapist and certified life coach. If you become anxious when you scroll through social media during the workday, take a step back to recognize that and limit how much time you spend on your screen or eliminate it altogether.

It's helpful to remember that your anxiety is a reaction to something, rather than an unchangeable part of your personality, Tarry adds.

Avoid 'all or nothing' thinking

You might become anxious when you don't know what will happen in a stressful situation, and your mind might go to the worst possible outcome. The prospect of going back to work probably raises concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus and, at worst, getting very sick and dying.

These are certainly risks that people have to face every day, especially if you're at higher risk of contracting the virus, says Benton. However, focusing solely on the worst-case scenario isn't the best way to prepare yourself for returning to public life.

"These are all or nothing thoughts, and usually, all or nothing doesn't help you move forward," Benton says. "It's not so much that this can't happen — but is it helpful to walk around and tell yourself that every day? Probably not. If you're so overwhelmed by the danger that you can't actually take care of yourself or get on with life, that's not helpful."

A helpful thought would be to remember that you have control over your own behaviors to keep yourself safe, like wearing a mask, washing your hands and practicing social distancing. Essentially consider, "what can you tell yourself that gives yourself a better sense of coping rather than feeling victimized?" Benton says.

Manage anxiety with preparation

Part of avoiding "all or nothing" thinking is being prepared so you can adjust your expectations and behavior when returning to the workplace.

For example, how can you prepare yourself to stay safe in public? Think about how you'll manage your commute; what protective gear and cleaning supplies to keep on your person; how you'll manage eating and drinking while at the workplace; and how you'll interact with colleagues or clients. Even habits as simple as laying out your clothes the night before, packing your work bag in advance and bringing your own lunch can help you feel more in control, Tarry says. She also recommends you give yourself ample time in the morning so you don't feel rushed to get out the door, which can contribute to anxiety.

Similarly, to put your mind at ease, ask your employer what safety precautions they'll have in place, Benton says.

Your employer should have a plan for how many people will be onsite; how people will move throughout the facilities; what safety equipment and cleaning supplies will be available; whether masks will be required of employees and clients; how to maintain proper ventilation and air flow; and other precautions to ensure workers won't be put at-risk when they return.

Having these conversations can help you feel more in control of the situation. You might learn that your employer has workers coming in on a staggered schedule, desks will be six feet apart, social distancing will be observed through the building, and face masks will be required and available onsite. If you learn your employer doesn't have a plan for all of your concerns, you may be able to contribute your own ideas for a safer and less stressful return.

"Hopefully you have the kind of boss or employer where you can raise these issues and make some suggestions about what you might do as an office to be better protected," Benton says. "If you don't have a boss like that, you have to legitimately think how much risk you're willing to take on."

Be intentional with how you get your news

Gathering too much information about the coronavirus, or getting it from the wrong place, can make you more anxious. Benton and Tarry agree that it's best to be intentional with how much time you spend reading the news and where you get it from. For example, you may stick with listening to a news radio show for 30 minutes on your morning and evening commutes, but then avoid scrolling through Twitter during your free time.

Defer to official sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, for general updates on the state of the pandemic and how to keep yourself safe. Then, look to what your local health authorities are saying for day-to-day news.

"Knowing your local information is the most important for making your own decisions," Benton says.

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Practice radical acceptance

Ultimately, while you can't control the things that cause you anxiety, such as the virus itself or how other people behave, you can control how you respond to them. For these situations, Tarry says that it can be helpful to practice radical acceptance.

"Examine what you can and will tolerate through statements such as, 'I am in control of how I feel and how I respond to those feelings,' or 'I am able to accept I cannot change other people, even if I wish I could,'" Tarry explains. "You may not like [what's happening], but that doesn't mean you can't do anything about it."

"In actuality," Tarry continues, "there are things we don't like to do every day, but that doesn't mean we can avoid them. We have to do certain things in order to survive. It's about having opposing perspectives and being able to tolerate both. That helps people ground themselves in the now and how to handle their needs."

Practicing radical acceptance can help you feel more empowered when others act in ways you don't agree with, such as if another person chooses not to wear a mask. Remember that there's only so much you can do if you're not in a position of authority, Tarry says, and figure out the best ways for you to respond to keep anxiety at bay.

That might look like keeping a few extra masks to hand out to others who don't have one, if that feels right for you, Tarry says. Or, you might know when to step away from a situation, take a few deep breaths or calm yourself by listening to music.

One area where Tarry cautions against stepping away is if you witness acts of targeted discrimination, whether it's related to systemic racism and violence directed toward Black Americans, or to the rise of anti-Asian attacks emboldened by racist rhetoric from political leaders.

"For people to stand by and watch anyone be attacked because of ethnic identity and assume they're criminal in the act of us dealing with the pandemic is absurd," Tarry says. "People seeing that need to speak up. We can't be complicit in watching people die or be attacked on the streets."

Vocalize what you can tolerate

Even if you take a step back from consuming media about the pandemic, you may get anxious when friends and family talk to you about the latest updates.

In these cases, Tarry recommends you be gentle but direct. Tell the other person that you can't engage with them about coronavirus news because it makes you anxious, and that you'll reach back out to them if and when you're ready to talk about it. This way, they don't assume that you're willing to be a passive recipient of stressful information, Tarry says.

You may also be under a lot of stress dealing with traumatic events while suddenly back in the workplace and navigating yet another new way of living through unprecedented circumstances. Given the current state of the economy, you may be particularly anxious about how speaking up at work will impact how you're viewed as an employee during times of high furloughs, layoffs and job instability.

With that said, "I think people understand there are other things going on in the world besides work," Tarry says. Managers have learned to be more empathetic and flexible about what work looks like during the pandemic and how their employees' needs might have changed. To that end, try negotiating with your manager about the way they communicate information so you get what you need to do your job but don't become overwhelmed to the point of anxiousness. That might mean asking that your manager be more explicit if an email needs to be handled immediately, by the end of the day or by the end of the week, for example, rather than defaulting to the expectation that every message needs an immediate response.

"Speaking up in a way that's professional, concrete and resolution-oriented, for most managers, is respected," Tarry says.

Schedule in joy

Workplace experts agree that sticking to a new type of routine can help you adjust to navigating the uncertainties of life during the pandemic. That includes scheduling in time to relax and enjoy yourself, which can alleviate anxiety and stress, Tarry says.

Remember the new routines you've established in the past few months and keep the parts of your day that bring you joy as you return to work. For example, maybe you've come to enjoy ending your day by taking a walk around your neighborhood. As you transition back to the workplace, you might instead get off the bus a few stops early on your commute home and walk the rest of the way while listening to a podcast, calling a friend or enjoying the fresh air and exercise on your own.

Take your symptoms seriously

Regardless of whether you feel anxious every day or even just once in a while, Tarry recommends everyone tune in to their feelings and take their symptoms of anxiety seriously. In May, the United Nations warned that the coronavirus pandemic "has the seeds of a major mental health crisis" and called for substantial investment in support services. If you notice any changes to your body or mood, examine that and seek mental health support now through teletherapy, an employee assistance program or another provider to help you work through difficult feelings now.

"Your environment has a lot to do with chronic symptoms of anxiety that start seemingly out of nowhere," Tarry says, adding that "for the first time in history, more people can see a provider anywhere in the nation."

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