Got the fear? Here’s how to re-enter the world

As reopening looms, some people are stressed about resuming normality. Photograph: Getty Images
After 15 months of working remotely, socialising over Zoom and not seeing the inside of anyone else’s house, the thought of getting back out there is exhilarating. And for some of us, it’s more than a bit terrifying.

As the world begins to slowly reawaken, FOMO – fear of missing out – has been replaced by FOJI or fear of joining in.

“I did have one meal with friends at the end of last summer and I just felt so worried and guilty after it, I don’t know if I’ll actually want to socialise that much. I love the idea, but with cases still around, I don’t think it’s realistic for a long while yet,” says Jo, who is 33, mother to a toddler and suffers from an immune disorder. She has lost friends as a result of their different approaches to risk. “I find it hard to accept that they think my life is worth less than theirs; that it would be okay for me to extract myself and my family from society so they could continue on as before.”

Now, as reopening looms, “I’m more stressed that people will abandon safe behaviours soon with widespread vaccination, despite there still being a small risk.”

Siobhán has a different set of concerns. She works in the pharmaceutical industry, has enjoyed having more time at home with her children and has realised she doesn’t want her old life back. “My job pre-Covid would have had me spending maybe on average a night a week in UK and I don’t miss that,” she says. As part of a small Irish team, however, she’s also anxious about less face-to-face interaction with her colleagues and what that will mean for her career development.

Elizabeth, a retired midwife, is not ready for the reopening of society. She feels stressed seeing pictures of crowded streets. “All this talk of variants erodes confidence,” she says. “I was always pessimistic. Now it’s like an obsessive compulsive disorder, clicking into stories” about Covid. She will force herself to get out and see people because she wants to see her grandchild, but the idea of doing anything beyond that makes her nervous. “My daughters don’t know how I feel and I don’t want them to know. I would never have been seen as anxious.”

The pandemic has shaken our collective confidence in each other, in the economy and in our future. And as the country prepares for reopening, that confidence won’t be regained overnight. Anxiety about the reopening appears to be manifesting in three ways. People may be primarily worried about the health implications of resuming their social life. Or they might be concerned about handling the logistics and etiquette of getting together. Friends in California, which has now vaccinated 53.2 per cent of its population with at least one dose and has moved on to teenagers, are having conversations with each other about whether they should insist on masks inside the house, even after everyone is vaccinated, or whether they should eat out just because they can.

On top of that there’s a degree of collective social anxiety because we’re out of practice at being around other people. 

Dr Ian Robertson believes we should look at this period of reopening as an opportunity, as much as a problem to be overcome.
Dr Ian Robertson believes we should look at this period of reopening as an opportunity, as much as a problem to be overcome.

“It’s a real triple whammy, isn’t it?” says Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist, clinical psychologist and author of the newly-published How Confidence Works. Healthwise, “it’s still an uncertain situation. Then we’re doing this delicate dance around people’s different attitudes to what’s acceptable and what’s not. And that feeds into the third thing, which is social anxiety, because our social relationships are sustained by habit”.

The New York Times recently likened the collective psychological shift demanded by reopening to people “re-entering the civilian world after prison, wartime deployment, humanitarian aid work or remote expeditions”. But Robertson suggests we don’t have to look as far as the Arctic circle or soldiers returning from overseas deployment for analogies to the nerves, excitement and anxiety many people are feeling. “I used to see it so much in women returning from work after maternity leave. We are creatures of habit. And if that habit is disrupted, for whatever reason – in this case by lockdown – then to re-establish the old habits requires us to use our capacity to plan action” in a conscious way around things that would have previously been routine, he says.

It’s possible to be an anxious extrovert, or a non-anxious introvert

As we prepare to re-enter the world, there are two challenges to overcome. The first is purely about navigating the logistics of returning to work, restarting a social life, going back to college, or whatever the circumstances of your situation demand. The second, and more difficult one for many people, is about mustering the confidence to do so.

Robertson cites the example of a university student who was always a bit socially anxious. For those people, “the rough and tumble of going to college would have brought you out of yourself and you would have established new habits [to] help overcome all that. But you’ve been sitting at home in your bedroom for the first year of college. And you’re preparing to college now in person – it’s going to be trebly difficult.”

It’s not just introverted personality types who are struggling. “It’s possible to be an anxious extrovert, or a non-anxious introvert. It’s just that being an extrovert makes it more likely you will do stuff in spite of being anxious.” While an introvert might be happy to take their reintegration into society slowly, an anxious extrovert – and I can personally attest to this – will eventually be driven out of their own house by sheer boredom with their own company.

Rob, a 35-year-old who works in the design industry, also identifies with the description of “an anxious extrovert”. As someone with severe health anxiety who thrives on company, the past year has been unimaginably hard, he says. But it’s also true that “the enforced isolation has forced a bit of reflection time that I wouldn’t ordinarily have given myself. I work through things by talking to other people and seeing other people, and not being able to do so hasn’t been the worst thing for me”.

Can he see himself resuming his old life once he is fully vaccinated? “I can imagine myself going back because I think that the risks of persisting anxiety around this are greater to me than the risks of resuming life as normal. It’s all about calculated risks. In terms of my mental health, going to see people – even if it feels anxious and uncomfortable to begin with – forcing myself to work through that and go to see people is actually the healthier way to move forward. Even if it provokes anxiety, I’m going to embrace resuming activity as much as I possibly can.” 

So what can people like Rob do to build confidence? Are there steps he and others could take now to build their confidence as they navigate a reopened world?

1 Practice mindfulness

You may roll your eyes. “Practice mindfulness” has become the default response to any discussion about stress, but despite sounding like an Instagram cliché, there is strong scientific evidence behind mindful meditation. A pre-condition for confidence is feeling some degree of control over your emotions, says Robertson. “If you feel at the mercy of your emotions, whether it’s anxiety or mood, it’s very hard to feel confident, because these winds that can blow through you that means you can’t predict the outcomes of your interactions. Everyone reading this should find a way of doing relaxation, or mindfulness.”

He suggests using one of the apps available online, which include the better known paid apps like Headspace and Calm, newer ones like Ten Percent Happier which have limited free offerings, and fully free ones like Insight Timer.

In essence, mindfulness teaches you to control your attention, which in turn allows you to control your emotions. The principle behind it is quite simple: “When we get very anxious, it’s generally because we’re projecting bad things into the future. And when we get very depressed, it’s usually because we’re dredging up bad things from the past. And if you can keep yourself more in the moment and control your attention, you will control your emotions to some extent.”

2 Deep breaths every time you change tasks

Breathe in for the count of four, and out for the count of six. “If you do nothing else between now and the time when you go back to work, or back to college, or out socialising again, every time you change tasks, take 20 seconds to change the chemistry of your brain by just breathing. Breathe slightly longer out than in, keeping your mind on the breathing. It is literally a reset button for the brain,” says Robertson.

I must look slightly unconvinced, because he says, “I promise if you do this, you will not be sceptical”.

He describes the science. “There’s a tiny little sliver of tissue in the middle of the brain called the locus coeruleus. That’s the only source of noradrenaline, which is the brain’s equivalent of adrenaline. And noradrenaline is the fight part of the fight or flight system. And when we’re very pressured or stressed or worried, our brain produces a lot of noradrenaline. Too little, such as at four o’clock in the morning and we’re sleeping, our brain underperforms. Too much, we’re panicked or anxious, our brain underperforms.”

The “wonderful thing about the locus coeruleus” is that it is highly sensitive, millisecond to millisecond, to how much carbon dioxide is in your blood. “So as you slow your breathing, you’re controlling the chemistry of your brain, and hence your emotions, more precisely than any pill the doctor could give without side effects.”

Make it a habit now, he advises. Otherwise you won’t remember to do it in the stress of a job interview, or the pressure of going back to the office. “So every time you change task – every time you go from answering your emails to going to make a cup of coffee, just take 20 seconds and do it. When I’m giving a talk, I do it every time I come to a new section of the talk.”

3 Fake it til you make it

“Do things you don’t quite feel ready to do. Fake it till you make it,” says Robertson. In his book, How Confidence Works, he describes how social interactions – or any mildly challenging situation – have something like a multiplier effect, kicking off a pleasurable feedback loop in the brain that means we’re more likely to want to go next time. “Whenever we achieve a goal that we set for ourselves that feels like an accomplishment, that sense of satisfaction we get is the activation of the reward network. It is the increased dopamine activity in the reward network centre. If you do something in spite of feeling anxious – something just out of your comfort zone, not too much, because goals have a sweet spot as well – that spurt of dopamine activity is a mini-antidepressant.

“Confidence can be learned, but it can be unlearned.” Anxiety is “the enemy of confidence” and the reverse is also true. “Confidence is the antidote to anxiety.” The more you do things that push you slightly outside your comfort zone, the more your confidence grows, the less anxiety you’ll feel the next time a similar challenge arrives. Over the past 15 months there have been lots of opportunities for anxiety to flourish, and not many for building confidence. 

But, he warns, “don’t do the ‘big bang’ return, particularly if you’re a somewhat anxious person. Pick off a few sub-goals”. Create “a series of nested goals leading up to the big one” of going back to the office or attending a large gathering.

4 Do something for someone else

“One of the problems with anxiety is that it makes you more self-aware. It activates the right half of the brain,” making you hyper self-conscious and overly focused on how you sound, how you look, how you’re performing. Doing something for someone else, “produces really positive feelings via a number of the brain’s chemical messenger systems, but particularly oxytocin”, which is the third critical chemical in controlling confidence.

“The key to all of these techniques is that you can take control of your own brain function, so you can learn that confidence is a stance that you take.” It is not an innate or fixed characteristic, but something that you can decide to adopt.

5 Set authentic goals

Ticking small, slightly challenging goals off a list is another way to activate the reward centre in your brain. If you’re feeling anxious, keep yourself in implementation rather than deliberation mode. Too much time spent thinking about goals instead of putting steps in place to achieve them allows self-doubt to creep in, especially for women. “Women’s underconfidence is improved when they are in an action-oriented, implemental mindset,” Robertson writes in the book, which explores the confidence gap between the genders.

The goals you set should be authentic and achievable, however. Saying “I can become rich” is not an authentic goal. Saying I’ll text that person who might be able to help me find a job and suggest a coffee is.

6 Say the words

In his book, Robertson cites the power of positive self-talk, giving the example of Padraig Harrington who hit two consecutive shots into the river at Carnoustie when he was on the brink of winning the British Open in 2007. His thoughts began to spiral; he described afterwards how he went from feeling like winning the tournament was within grasp to embarrassment and humiliation in a single swing. “I was feeling so low. I had choked, I had lost the Open, I had thrown it away,” he said afterwards.

His caddy Ronan Flood kept repeating the same phrase over and over to him: “One shot at a time, you’re the best chipper and putter in the world. One shot at a time, you’re the best chipper and putter in the world.”

Harrington knew they were cliches, and Flood said afterwards that even he didn’t believe a word of it. But magically, it worked. “I hit it like a teenager showing off,” Harrington said. Only it wasn’t magic at all, Robertson explains. It was all about Flood harnessing Harrington’s attention on to the next two shots only, banishing thoughts of success or failure. Confidence, says Robertson, is all about “using the software of the mind to control the hardware of your brain and your body”

7 Embrace the uncertainty

Feelings of apprehension or anxiety about reopening are normal. It only becomes a bigger issue if “it’s interfering with what you would regard as a normal life for you”, says Robertson.

We should look at this period as an opportunity, as much as a problem to be overcome. He cites the example of remote working, which has now become the norm for many people, as an example. “In flux, there is both anxiety and opportunity.”

Normally, the advice after a traumatic experience is to avoid making big, life-changing decisions, to hold tight and embrace the status quo. But Robertson says that doesn’t necessarily apply here. We’ve had a year and a half to sit at home with our thoughts and during that time, “it might be that your priorities and your values have become more apparent to you. So I wouldn’t counsel against listening to the gut feelings or thoughts or possibilities about the way you might want to change your life. The essence of confidence is seeing something as an opportunity more than a threat”.

How Confidence Works: The New Science of Self-Belief, why some people learn it and others don’t by Ian Robertson is published by Transworld. The names of some interviewees have been changed