Health and Wellness

Concerned that returning to work will impact your mental health? Here's how to set boundaries

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It's no surprise that mental health has taken a hit during the Covid pandemic. A December survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 42% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from 11% in previous years.

But there are aspects of pandemic life — working remotely, staying home and opting out of social situations, for instance — that have made life and managing their mental health easier for some.

While many are struggling to balance childcare or feeling overwhelmed by isolation, others prefer the flexibility of remote work and telemedicine, and are grateful not to have to participate in social functions.

If you are at all dreading going back to "normal life," here are ways to deal, according to experts.

It's normal to feel scared, but changes are healthy

In periods of stress — whether that's a pandemic, economic turmoil or racial unrest — we make adjustments to manage the stressors that are within our control, David Rosmarin, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety tells CNBC Make It. In the case of the pandemic, for example, many people started working from home and streamlined social interactions to avoid coming into contact with the virus.

"That's a good, healthy process that we've all made those adaptations," Rosmarin says. Over the past year, we have become very comfortable with our "new normal," and might feel excessive fear or anxiety about returning to how things were before.

Eventually, some aspects of life will return to how it was before the pandemic, and these temporary solutions may not serve us anymore. "If you continue to use them, they actually get in the way of mental health, and could become problematic," he says.

Recognize your anxiety

Anxiety is a condition of feeling "full of dread," Margaret Wehrenberg, psychologist and author of "Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times," tells CNBC Make it.

In order to alleviate the feelings of dread, people with anxiety often spend "an excessive amount of time scanning their world for a problem and trying to solve it," Wehrenberg says. This can lead people to attach their worries to something that doesn't necessarily warrant it or isn't based in reality.

"Anxiety is a condition that looks for content," she says.

Of course, the pandemic has given us ample reason to worry about our safety. But identifying moments when you feel symptoms of anxiety (e.g. restlessness, fatigue, irritability, worry or trouble sleeping) and labeling it as such can help you feel in control of what happens next.

Communicate your concerns

Returning to work does require you to assume a degree of risk, even if you're fully vaccinated. Comfort levels can vary from person to person, Rosmarin says. Companies should be open to hearing individual preferences rather than adopting blanket policies, he says.

Wondering how you can set appropriate boundaries as an employee? "Think about it more in terms of coordination and a discussion," Rosmarin says.

First, "find out what flexibility exists in your individual world in order to discuss that with a supervisor," Wehrenberg says. Get as much detail as possible about the return policies, so you can form an accurate opinion and pinpoint what you need.

Also think about what is working for you: "Are there things about the schedule of where you work and how you work, that might suit you better?" she says.

Practice addressing social anxiety

People with even a hint of social anxiety or shyness before the pandemic have generally not been troubled by staying home and working remotely — and may feel relieved not to deal with in-person interactions, Wehrenberg says. "Going back to their environment will be very hard," she says.

Social anxiety is characterized by fear of being judged by others, feeling self-conscious in everyday social situations and avoiding meeting new people, according to the National Institutes of Health. At work, someone with social anxiety might feel nervous speaking up in meetings, connecting with coworkers or asking questions to supervisors.

One way to combat these feelings is to "develop an accurate anticipation of what will be expected of you," Wehrenberg says. For example, what is the protocol going to be around social distancing or mask-wearing when you return to the office?

In instances where you feel like you might have misinterpreted someone's social cues, it's important to find a way to approach that very directly without hesitation, she says. "Walking away feeling uncertain will drive your anxiety through the roof," she says.

It can be helpful to plan a few social engagements a week to get comfortable being around people, Rosmarin says. Isolation makes the anxiety worse: "When people are isolated and alone, they feel less confident and are more likely to be negative," he says. "So then the social anxiety builds, and then it's even harder for them to go out and to get that lift of positive emotion."

Remember your best day

Returning to work is going to feel weird, regardless of your personal preferences about the current situation.

If you're still dreading it, Wehrenberg suggests that you think about before the pandemic and how you felt about your workplace on a good day. Think through details about everything from your commute to your coworkers, and try to reframe your attitude.

"What would it look like if you had a good day, going back to work now? How would you feel about your commute? What would you do with your time?" she says.

Don't miss: 1 in 3 Covid survivors are diagnosed with conditions like anxiety and insomnia after recovery — here’s what Covid does to your brain

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