We Talked to Some Therapists About Covid Shaming, “Reentry Anxiety,” and the Government Disillusions Their Patients Are Experiencing During the Pandemic

“This has affected every single one of us.”

The situation we’ve been in over the last few months—you know, stuck inside during an unprecedented pandemic—lends itself to a variety of metaphors: Perhaps your mental state has been akin to that of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, befriending inanimate objects as you solemnly tally the days passed. Or maybe you’ve embraced more Jack Nicholson/The Shining vibes, mumbling your way through the halls until you realize, Oh, my God! I was the caretaker all along.

Whatever the comparison, it’s safe to say we’ve all been driven a little batty of late. So what are the folks who help us deal with said battiness—mental-health experts—seeing these days?

Well, for one, with an event as pervasive as a pandemic, it’s likely everyone has been emotionally affected in some way.

“A major crisis always changes people’s behavior in ways that they are aware of or unaware of,” says Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University who specializes in trauma. “This has affected every single one of us in the country and in the world. All of us had to manage our behavior in order to cope with it.”

For some, the change may manifest itself as forever seeing post-pandemic life in a dangerous light—a.k.a. “reentry anxiety,” as Fairfax psychiatrist Jennifer Santoro calls it. “I think we’re worried people are going to walk around paranoid, keeping their distance,” she says. “Before, how much time did you spend worrying unless you had some sort of obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder? Most people don’t walk around looking at the person next to them and being like, Do they have a hidden disease that I could get if they breathe on me?”

Take Melanie, a 31-year-old Alexandria resident (who asked to go by her first name) dealing with reentry anxiety. A homebody, she had recently started forcing herself to leave the house and socialize—until the pandemic cut that effort short. Now Melanie is probably going to go back to living online, she says: “I feel like pretty much every introvert alive right now is possibly feeling pretty justified.”

Even extroverts are experiencing anxiety about stepping back out. Troy Petenbrink, 50, who lives in 16th Street Heights, ordinarily considers himself an adventurous, outgoing person. While he doesn’t think the pandemic will cause him to forever forgo travel or seeing friends, he’s more aware of the inherent risks. “A bit of caution and a bit of nervousness are the things that actually keep you safe,” he says. “These are natural safety mechanisms. It’s that whole ‘look before you leap.’ I’m still going to leap—I’ll be looking maybe twice before I leap.”

More taxing to Petenbrink has been witnessing how others are handling the pandemic—as in, some are not. “I’m going to have to assume responsibility for other people’s actions a lot more,” he says of people who venture out without a mask or disregard social-distancing guidelines. “My trust in others has certainly been questioned.”

Petenbrink and his partner have been stringent about Covid-19 guidelines, maintaining their distance on walks and leaving food in the garage at his eightysomething mother-in-law’s house. So it makes him angry to see others not adhering to the rules. “I’m like, ‘Great, thanks for not caring about my mother-in-law, your neighbor,’ ” he says.

This general feeling of distrust can be particularly acute for those who have trust issues due to previous trauma, says Santoro: “They sort of walk around with a feeling of, you know, ‘Is the world safe? Can I trust people?’ And then this situation has certainly escalated it.”

The loss of faith in fellow Homo sapiens can extend to governing institutions and officials, too.

Hedy Howard, a Chevy Chase psychiatrist, says many of her patients have recently discussed a growing distrust in government due to how the pandemic has been handled. “People don’t normally spend so much time talking about that, but [now they do because] they’re very afraid,” she says, referencing the comments President Trump made about the virus and ingesting disinfectants. “That was quite disturbing to my patients [who feel] like they’re not being told the truth and they’re being led by somebody who doesn’t appear to be stable and trustworthy.”

Like Santoro, Howard points out that this leadership disillusionment can be particularly acute for those who grew up in abusive households or with childhood trauma: “They feel very frightened by having a leader who they can’t trust, is giving them information that isn’t true, or is behaving in ways that remind them of abusive people in their past.”

NoMa resident Deserie Rollins, 34, is an example of someone experiencing this distrust: She doesn’t believe the DC government has done a good job of providing information about pandemic precautions. “I don’t think they’ve been stepping up,” Rollins says. “You don’t look to them completely for information. You get the information, and now you go and make sure it’s correct. You have to do research more than ever.”

Which brings us to another effect of the pandemic: Covid-shaming. With many feeling they have to assume responsibility for enforcing the rules, the internet has become the battleground of self-appointed public-health enforcers. Someone posts a picture of a group not social-distancing or writes a long Twitter thread about runners refusing to wear masks and—like that—the keyboard warriors descend.

“This is kicking up kind of an obsessionality for people—the people who are anxious anyway and that’s how they manage it,” says Santoro. “They are obsessional about scanning their environment for who’s following the rules, who’s not following the rules, and posting things.”

Shaming and rule obsession are mainly the result of anxiety or anger, either of which can be boiled down to one primal source—fear, says Santoro. “This is a scary situation that we have never lived through before.”

An example: When Rollins saw a video that her boyfriend took of people hanging out in Logan Circle on a sunny May day, with seemingly little regard for the recommended six feet of space, she posted it on Twitter and tagged Mayor Muriel Bowser. “I was like, ‘This is crazy,’ ” she says of deciding others needed to see it. She says it was mostly anger that drove her to post the video (an impulse, remember, that Santoro sees as driven by fear). “Everyone is supposed to be quarantining, but no, DC has to be exposed as well,” Rollins says. “Like, either we’re shutting it down or not. What are we doing here?”

This sense of duty, this need to reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together, is a new mental state for many Americans living in what’s typically a “very individualistic society,” says Dass-Brailsford. Part of the heightened sense of connectivity is due to—you guessed it—fear, she says, and can manifest itself via such things as posting a video to Twitter. “We feel so helpless around this that we begin to behave in ways where we have this group consciousness about things. We have more of a collectivistic frame of reference now, because your behavior is going to impact me.”

While Dass-Brailsford thinks it’s normal for the pandemic to leave us with a heightened sense of wariness and mutual responsibility, she warns against taking precautions to the extreme. Sure, it’s prudent to restructure your usual routine, but it may be time to seek help when you can’t leave the house without, say, washing your hands ten times. “When people are getting paranoid, for example, that’s going to be a red flag,” Dass-Brailsford says. “Anything that prevents the person from carrying out daily functioning and is outside the zone of just being thoughtful and careful would be alarming.”

Bad news aside, is there any mental-health benefit that experts think may come of all this? For the people who are able to stay home and reduce their commitments, says Santoro, it could lead to closer relationships: “People are thinking maybe this is a reminder that we all need to slow down, and there are benefits to [doing so]. What does it mean to slow down and intentionally spend time connecting with people? Maybe there’s a silver lining in that.”

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.