Right now, gathering with friends might feel exciting—and kind of terrifying.

Throughout the pandemic, most of us wanted nothing more than for our normal routines to be restored: to be able to do our favorite yoga class in person, meet up with a friend at a restaurant for dinner, go into the office and chat with coworkers next to the coffee maker (OK, maybe not so much for that last one). But it’s safe to say that many of us have longed for more human contact during the past year.

Now that the possibility of socializing with people is back on the table—or, at least, becoming more real every day—many are anxious about returning to pre-COVID gatherings. And despite the excitement that comes along with that, there’s also a good chance you’ll be a little freaked out by all that extra exposure.

Why This Side of the Pandemic Might Feel Even More Stressful , Young female model taking off her mask to prevent contagious diseases

The truth: Those feelings are totally normal, and you should expect that it might take some time to re-adjust. “I’m calling it the stranger-danger redux,” Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a stress expert and editor of the American Institute of Stress’s Contentment Magazine, tells Health. She likens the stress of coming face-to-face with another person post-COVID to that of navigating public places as a little kid. “When you’re a toddler and you’d run up to a stranger in the mall, your parents [said]: ‘Woah, that’s a stranger,” Dr. Ackrill says. Now, it’s more like “Woah, that’s another person—without a mask on.”

Over the past year, we’ve been taught that everyone outside of our bubble—stranger or not—is a potential danger. “Even the people we love are a danger. We’ve gone back to this ‘Whom are we supposed to trust?’ [game]—and our brain has been doing this for over a year,” says Dr. Ackrill. It seems kind of counterproductive to the whole “getting back to normal thing,” but there’s a reason—a few actually—as to why so many people are feeling a bit of hesitation. Here’s what you need to know about any post-pandemic anxiety you might be feeling—and how you can cope.


It took your brain a while to process wearing a mask—and it’ll take it a while to process not wearing one

As restrictions continue to be lifted, thanks to the use of safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, you’ll probably find yourself near people outside of your pod, either by necessity (if your employer requires it) or by choice (if you choose to attend a friend’s birthday gathering).

In these situations, it might take some time to retrain your brain not to worry about socializing with other unmasked individuals, Chivonna Childs, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Adult Behavioral Health, tells Health. “We’ve become hyperaware of people around us,” Childs says. “We feel like we’ve become the mask police: we don’t know their condition, don’t know if they’re carriers. We’re used to that now.”

It took a lot of effort for your brain to adjust to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Ackrill adds, pointing out that you trained yourself to monitor those around you—and are now trying to convince your body that it doesn’t need to worry about that anymore. “That’s a lot of training for the brain—we’ve really made a habit of considering other human beings a danger,” Dr. Ackrill says.

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By Maggie O’Neill