Bracing for Impact: As Vaccinations Progress, Writers — and a Cartoonist — Reflect on Reentry Anxiety | Culture | Seven Days

Bracing for Impact: As Vaccinations Progress, Writers — and a Cartoonist — Reflect on Reentry Anxiety | Culture | Seven Days


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KYM BALTHAZAR

My partner got her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine the other day. She sat anxiously in a plastic chair in a makeshift curtained cubicle next to the Polar seltzer cooler in the back of a CVS Pharmacy in Rutland. Instead of wincing in pain when the nurse jabbed her, she had an entirely unexpected reaction. As the needle went in, she exhaled in relief like she was slipping into a hot bath at the end of a long day: “Ahhhhh.”

She then giggled self-consciously, which elicited a chuckle from the nurse. “You’d be amazed how many people do that,” the nurse assured her.

Or maybe you wouldn’t.

Is it really any wonder that even people who normally loathe needles would react to the shot by unclenching and letting go of more than a year’s worth of death, dread, isolation and unrelenting angst brought on by the coronavirus? (I whooped just registering for my vaccine appointment, and then high-fived my dog.)

The truth is, those little needles are piercing through a whole lot more than skin. They’re puncturing the veil that has shrouded a pandemic-stricken world. And they’re delivering more than just miracle serums and antibodies. They’re offering hope and, with any luck, a future.

Indeed, earlier this week, Gov. Phil Scott unveiled his new vaccine-era blueprint “Vermont Forward: Roadmap to Reopening.” The four-step plan projects a gradual easing of capacity restrictions and mask mandates in the coming months, aiming to reopen Vermont entirely by July 4 — Independence Day, naturally.

It’s all terribly exciting, isn’t it? But (whispers nervously) it’s also kind of terrifying.

For many, especially those who struggled with anxiety before the pandemic, the prospect of an impending return to something like normalcy is in itself cause for major apprehension. For starters: What does “normal” even mean anymore? And is a return to it necessarily a good thing?

That debate could fill several issues of this newspaper — and just might at some point. For now, the stories in the following pages explore some of the apprehension around reengaging with the outside world — aka “reentry anxiety.” Essays, poetry, reported stories and even a cartoon touch on both serious and lighthearted emotions that many of us are feeling as we move from “together apart” to “together again,” in some cases with real trepidation. (For even more, check out this week’s episode of “Stuck in Vermont,” in which host Eva Sollberger talks to folks in downtown Burlington about their reentry anxieties.)

Here’s a confession: I’ve mostly enjoyed the isolation.

Do I miss my friends, family and coworkers? Every day. But as an introvert by nature, I thrive with time and space to myself. And as someone who equally looks forward to and resents social and professional obligations, my genuine excitement for doing normal things again is dampened by genuine anxiety about making plans. I’m late for meetings when my commute is across the hall from bedroom to desk. How am I going to fare when I have to account for putting on real pants and driving to an office?

I’m hardly alone in feeling tension about post-vaccination life. Hell, google the term “reentry anxiety,” and you’ll find articles dating back to June 2020. Those well-meaning scribes jumped the gun by about a year. But psychologist Cath Burns, the clinical supervisor at COVID Support VT (learn more about her and that organization on page 39) affirmed that reentry anxiety is real and something she’s been addressing more frequently with her patients.

“It’s certainly something people are struggling with,” Burns said, adding that people experience a wide spectrum of concerns.

For those like me, who were privileged enough to continue working from home during lockdown, there’s anxiety about what returning to in-person work environments might be like. Ditto for kids facing the prospect of returning to in-person school full time. These are especially acute worries for anyone with preexisting social anxieties, given that everyone’s social skills have surely atrophied over the past 13 months, Burns noted.

“One person said to me that the pandemic has been like fuel for his anxiety and his depressive disorder,” she recalled. “So for people who already struggle with social anxiety, I think it will be harder … because it was already hard.”

Even so, vaccinations herald a new chapter in the pandemic era: the prospect of life beyond the shadow of COVID-19. But not everyone can turn the page so easily.

Rebecca Mack was the first person I ever spoke to who had COVID-19. I interviewed the Burlington musician in late March 2020, when the novel coronavirus was still, well, novel. By that point Mack had mostly recovered, she thought, and was looking ahead to the very moment many of us are now anticipating.

“Imagine the amazing parties and shows and family dinners and stuff we’re gonna have when we’ve finally gotten past this,” she told me then. “That’s how I give myself a little boost when I need it.”

But Mack, leader of the vocal band Amerykanka, is a long-hauler — meaning someone who has lingering and sometimes severe complications from COVID-19. She’s been to the emergency room several times in the past year for cardiac and neurological issues stemming from her infection.

“There’s no promise for me that I will ever be normal like I was before,” Mack said in a recent phone call. “It’s pretty terrifying and gruesome. The symptoms are serious and unpredictable.”

As for reentry anxiety, she said, “It almost doesn’t apply to me.”

Which is not to say that Mack, the mother of two boys, doesn’t have anxieties about what the new, post-vaccinated world will bring, particularly since a vaccine for children is not yet approved.

“Knowing that COVID is on the rise among children globally and that children are becoming long-haulers, like me, makes me extremely wary,” Mack said. “Because I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through this year. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

“My hope is that, as we meet each other again, we’re extremely understanding of the pain and struggle, however it’s been for each person,” she continued. “I want to see people at their best with compassion for each other. People have gone through depression; they’ve been sick for an entire year like me; they’ve been caring for people or lost loved ones.

“That means,” Mack said, “when we go back to each other, we’re going back with an entirely different set of experiences than before.”

And perhaps a different set of anxieties.

A very important caveat: Based on the alarming recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Vermont and nationally, a positive trajectory is not guaranteed. But for the sake of discussion — and the next several thousand words in this collection of stories — let’s assume, hope for and take action for the best.

— Dan Bolles


The Threat of Normal

A Vermont comedian fears emerging into the light

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LUKE EASTMAN

After spending a long year in a dark place and mentally preparing to transition back into the light, I have been thinking a lot lately about the humble cicada.

This miraculous and disgusting little insect undergoes its own “quarantine” of sorts, spending an incredible 17 years underground. Presumably it spends much of this time baking sourdough bread and watching “The Crown” several thousand times, after which it emerges with a zillion of its closest nymph friends, eating and screwing its way through the southeastern United States before dropping dead after just one month.

And you thought your 2020 was bad.

After just one-seventeenth the time in isolation as the cicada, many of us are pondering our own emergence and looking forward to all the experiences we’ve been deprived of since the Ides of March last year. I am eager to hug my family. I can’t wait to eat at a restaurant with a bunch of friends. I am stoked to get on an airplane and worry only about dying in a fiery crash before I have written — or, er, started — my prizewinning novel.

But taking those first steps into the world also scares me, mostly because I have been under-practicing my social skills and over-practicing seeing people as a deadly threat. Who knows how long it will be until I feel 100 percent comfortable around people again? (OK, let’s be honest: If I get to 65 percent comfortability with people, that’s better than I was doing before.)

I think most of us are feeling some version of this trepidation. If you are not, you probably belong to one of the following two categories of American citizen:

People With Pancake Batter for Brains. These dum-dums are not nervous to reenter society chiefly because they never left it to begin with, seeing no reason to stop attending megachurch services simply because everyone over 65 in their family died of a “minor flu” on Christmas Day. Nice job, Peg! Fewer stockings to stuff next year!

People Who Did Not Have the Luxury of Choice. They worked in the public sector all year and have the permanent mask scar on the bridge of their nose to prove it. We do not deserve these heroes. As a token of our gratitude, they should be given Jeff Bezos’ fortune and his most critical internal organs.

But those of us who were able and willing to spend a year hiding from the world now face the prospect of reentering it again. For some, this will be a cautious but steady process of checking the local infection rate, popping into stores while still wearing a mask, and finally becoming confident enough to sit indoors at a bar for however long it takes to drink away the worst year of your life to date.

For me — and others who were diagnosed with anxiety before the pandemic — reentry will be more stressful. Anxious people are often in a state of high alert — mostly about unfounded threats we cannot control. In 2020, our anxiety was upgraded with a brand-new feature: founded threats we cannot control. This is why most of us held our breath while disinfecting individual bananas for 10 months in a row.

Luckily, by about June 2020 scientists had figured out the coronavirus could only be spread by “the breath of every human being and bat on the planet,” so all I had to do was train myself to believe that each person I encountered was a terrifying existential threat. (My behavior toward bats didn’t change: I didn’t fuck with them in the before times.)

As the weather has improved, Vermonters have been staggering into the streets like pajama-clad zombies but with paler skin. I have been running into old friends, and it is difficult not to treat everyone as a Dangerous Droplet Assassin. Sure, I am glad to see you, but I am also distracted, calculating the number of times you’ve exhaled upwind from me in the past six minutes.

I’ve also forgotten how to talk to people. Each exchange begins with me staring at someone, trying to mentally assemble — and then verbally articulate — the unique assortment of consonants and vowels that make up that person’s name. (Krimlon? That can’t be right. Shimbly?) This takes a full minute, and then we can move on to the rest of the interaction, which includes:

  1. Small talk about how the pandemic is affecting us
  2. Silent concern that the person is getting too close and Oh, God, their mask slipped off their nose
  3. Total mental exhaustion
  4. Pleasant goodbye
  5. Four-hour stress nap

As I wrestle with the anxiety of all this, I ask myself: When the cicada is freed from its underground prison, does it feel awkward socializing with other cicadas? Of course not. That little prick busts out a new set of wings and goes cruising for other horny bugs immediately. Does it scrub all of its food with an alcoholic wipe before eating it? Shit no. It strips the trees bare in order to fuel its revolting 30-day sex romp. If a cicada were to let anxiety control its life, the poor bastard would stay buried in the mud and miss out on the best month of its life.

Fun fact: In late spring of 2021, “Brood X” will be hatching in America, the largest colony of 17-year cicadas in recorded history. Billions of them will emerge triumphantly; they will kick off the dust, take flight together, feel the sun on their skin (scales? shells? I’m not an entomologist), and ingest everything life has to offer with such confidence, desperation and voraciousness that absolutely nothing is left on the vine. And if they can do it … well, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us, too.

But hey, just to alleviate my personal anxiety: Can we all agree to get the goddamn vaccine first?

Nathan Hartswick is a writer, educator and comedy performer who owns several dogs. He and his wife, Natalie Miller, are co-owners of Vermont Comedy Club in downtown Burlington.


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ALISON BECHDEL

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ALISON BECHDEL


Minor Anxiety

An essay on a community’s collective trauma

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SARAH CRONIN

“I ‘m falling asleep at two-thirty in the morning again,” I tell my therapist on a Tuesday afternoon. “And I don’t know why.”

We look at our cameras, at each other. We talk about “what’s been going on,” a catchall phrase that I’m getting tired of saying (and hearing). I tell her that I’m scared for my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. I say, “They live in Sacramento, in San Jose.” I say, “I don’t understand why they’re not reacting the same way.”

Thinking back on that conversation, I realize that anyone could have eavesdropped and thought, She’s talking about the pandemic. And in a way, I am.

Most of my relatives, after all, are nurses, and most of them have spoken to me about their struggles in the last year, about the caution and the worry that come with each workday.

The week before my therapy session, on March 16, eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — were murdered in Atlanta. On the 17th, an elderly woman of Asian descent was attacked in San Francisco. On the 21st, a woman of Asian descent, on her way to an anti-Asian violence protest, was attacked in New York City. The victims’ ages range from their early thirties to their mid-seventies.

To talk about the pandemic, then, is to talk about anti-Asian violence. And to talk about reentering a world where it’s rising — well, you can imagine the anxiety of someone of Asian descent, someone like me.

Early last year, when whispers of the coronavirus were just that, I was a senior at the University of Vermont. Masks and social-distancing measures were unheard of. Students who came to school sick — say, with a stuffy nose, a cough, a sore throat — still mingled with other students.

At the same time, anti-Asian incidents began to happen. One of the first articles I read was about a group attacking a 23-year-old man in London. Another, in Washington, concerned a 26-year-old woman, harassed and verbally abused on her way to the gym. Another, in New York, was about a 59-year-old man who was kicked and spit on in two separate occasions. I could go on.

I remember that Friday before our spring break, during the last minutes of my last class for what would be our last in-person day together, my professor asked us where we all planned to spend our vacation. Some of us said “home”; some of us said “here.”

“Well,” I remember him saying, half-jokingly, “wherever you go, I would just say, take your books with you. You never know what’s going to happen.”

And I remember all of us saying, “Sure. See you in two weeks.”

Of course, we didn’t see him in two weeks. At least not in person. Our spring break came to a soft end, met with adjustments that allowed for us to finish the semester virtually. That stretch of time became synonymous with shelter-in-place, quarantine periods, COVID-19 tests and Google searches: Scratchy throat covid. Toilet paper subscription. Traveling restrictions.

There was a spectrum of reactions. Some panicked, stocking, hoarding and fighting over supplies. Others questioned the science, denying the risks, complaining about what they deemed to be an overreaction. Many tried to give it a deadline: By fall, life will be back to normal.

Still, the numbers rose — of cases, of deaths. Of anti-Asian violence: In Texas, a family of three, including a 2- and a 6-year-old, are stabbed in a Sam’s Club; in Illinois, a 60-year-old man has a log thrown at him mid-jog; in New Jersey, a 55-year-old woman is yelled at and punched.

Me, I stayed home. I toggled between the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard and the New York Times maps, staring at the growing coronavirus splotches. I followed and unfollowed NextShark, a website that covers Asian American news. I checked in on my family, using different approaches to address the question of safety — not only from the pandemic but from the possibility of violence, too. I scrolled through the Apple News app late into the night, testing my boundaries: 2 a.m. 3 a.m. 4 a.m. I kept myself up thinking about the what ifs.

It didn’t matter how late I slept in, anyway. It wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go.

The maps that I watched a year ago now show a different legend: percentages of those vaccinated per state. You would think that this would change things — that with the rise in vaccines maybe we would see a decline in anti-Asian violence.

I don’t know.

For the past year, I’ve worried about my parents — about my mother, in particular, who likes to take long walks around our neighborhood. About my California aunts and my cousins, who work in hospitals and in assisted living facilities — who had to, at one point, navigate the pandemic, the wildfires and preparing their families for possible evacuations. About my uncles, some of whom have medical conditions that put them at risk for the coronavirus, some of whom have difficulty reconciling that their wives — and their children — are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus because of their jobs.

And I’ve worried about the Asian and Pacific Islander communities — about our trauma, our grief, our futures.

I’m scared.

Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 self-reported incidents of anti-Asian violence between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. Anti-Asian hate crimes, according to NBC News, increased by nearly 150 percent in 2020.

In what direction will these numbers go in the next year?

I don’t know.

It’s 2:30 a.m. I think about next fall, about adjusting to interactions outside of a virtual space, about leaving my dogs alone, about commuting between graduate school and home. I scroll through my phone, see that a young woman in San Francisco has been shot in the eye. “A potential ‘hate crime,'” the articles say. I wait a second before texting one of my cousins. “Be safe,” I say. Be safe, be safe.

Stephanie Cuepo Wobby is a Filipino American writer who has been published in Guernica. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Columbia University.


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MATT JENKINS

Familiarity

It’s hard to believe we’re quickly approaching life without the beloved coronavirus hanging over our heads.

Back to reality

Back to having to get fully dressed for events ’cause they’re in person now. 

Back to classes, and this time I can’t skip and blame it on “shitty Wi-Fi”

For most this means going back to a life without fear.

I don’t know about y’all but I’m just here for all the cookouts!

The comforting taste of sweet barbecue ribs is long, long overdue

The smell of freshly cut watermelon and homemade lemonade.

A type of security I haven’t felt in a long time.

In the midst of water gun fights with the little cousins in the scorching southern heat 

I forgot about the neighborhood watch watching what was a water gun now a real one

Watching what was innocent laughter turn into piercing silence.

I forgot the way blood looked on concrete.

Spending all afternoon in the backyard 

With the Cupid Shuffle on repeat 

My feet dance to the beat so naturally it’s second nature 

Just as much second nature as cruising down the Spotsylvania back roads in the summertime just in time for southern trees to bear their annual strange fruit. 

Reentry anxiety into the reopened country isn’t the half of it 

Back to classes, and this time I can’t skip and blame it on “shitty Wi-Fi”

Back to work, woken up before dawn to the sounds of gunshots louder than any alarm 

Just to dismiss it all before I clock in

I almost forgot my switch at home 

Excuse me, it’s been a year since I’ve had to speak code 

The instead of Da 

Your instead of Yo

Water instead of Wata

Reentry anxiety kicking in because I can’t afford to become another martyr 

Reentry anxiety spiking because we forgot how deadly our normal is for me.

Devyn Thompson is a sophomore secondary education major at Northern Vermont University. She is from Waldorf, Md. Her debut poetry book Soul was published in 2020.


Social Graces

Etiquette expert Lizzie Post on reconnecting post-pandemic

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Lizzie Post - COURTESY OF NADIA HUCKO

  • Courtesy Of Nadia Hucko
  • Lizzie Post

If minding your manners has felt low on your list of concerns over the past year, you’re not alone. According to psychologist Christine Runyan, in an interview last month with public radio show “On Being,” our nervous systems have been in fight, flight or freeze mode since the pandemic and its accompanying disruptions began. That has led to irritability, aggression, rigid thinking, a lack of cognitive flexibility to share others’ perspective or ideas, and a “massive loss of empathy,” she said.

In other words, many of us are difficult to be around right now and are more likely to be rude or reactive to the stress and anxieties of others. For author and etiquette expert Lizzie Post, a consideration of manners can help us better relate to one another as we retrain ourselves to socialize.

Post, who is copresident of the Emily Post Institute in Waterbury, suggests starting with an “overarching recognition that everyone is going to be dealing with this [time] differently.” Remembering that grief, loss, anxiety, health problems, and un- and underemployment are struggles for millions of people can help us bring sensitivity, compassion and awareness to social situations.

“You don’t know how the pandemic’s affected someone else,” Post said. “It’s great that those of us who have made it this far have made it, but be aware that over half a million people haven’t. The effects of this will be with us for a long time. It’s not like you get the vaccine, and then you can pay your back rent. [President Joe] Biden said this really well: This is a time to heal.”

For those who have fared well during the pandemic — someone whose business has been booming, for example — Post suggested speaking about it tactfully.

Healing will begin to happen as more of us are able to spend extended time with folks outside of our households. Since comfort or anxiety about resocializing varies widely, she acknowledged that sharing space with each other is something we need to relearn — much as we learned, at the beginning of the pandemic, to keep our distance. Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, thinks that some individuals will choose to keep more space around themselves for some time, even as government-imposed restrictions ease.

“Close is going to be uncomfortable for a while,” she said.

On the other hand, plenty of people are craving physical nearness and opportunities to mingle. Curious to see how resocializing plays out, Post said she wouldn’t be surprised to see more people crying or having emotional breakdowns in social situations.

For those who are ready to, say, have some friends over, she recommended calling potential guests beforehand to determine their comfort level with proximity and their expectations for social situations. Emailing a bulleted list of party rules is less effective than simply talking to people. Post also suggested allowing guests to bring their own drinking glasses or anything else that might make them feel more comfortable.

One way for people to navigate anxiety around resocializing is to do a bit of self-coaching. “Heck, even before the pandemic, I would need to remind myself, You just need to shake hands and introduce yourself, and that’s how things go,” Post relayed. “Even people who were perfectly confident with those things before might be feeling apprehensive. Reminding yourself, I know what to do, can give us confidence in situations that are kind of new to us after a year.”

Post herself recently began meeting up with friends indoors, after spending much of the pandemic “procrastibaking” and doing a full rewrite of Emily Post’s Etiquette (its 20th edition will coincide with the original book’s 100th anniversary). Although she enjoyed the time with friends, Post admitted to feeling a sense of relief when she returned home, where she lives alone.

Indeed, some of us might be leery of being around other people for extended periods, even as others are eager to spend lots of time finally socializing again. If anxiety arises and you feel the need to cut a conversation short or leave quickly, Post’s advice is to vocally acknowledge it and apologize.

“The nice thing about ‘I’m sorry’ is that it can get us out of a lot of awkward things,” she said. “Many people have a lot of understanding for how awkward and difficult this year has been.

“There was so much uncertainty for a year, and we turned out to be able to do it,” Post continued. “I’m hoping that people will have a lot of patience and gracious attitudes toward socializing with others. There will be some bumps, but the more we lean into it, the better it’s going to be in the long run.”

If other people act in ways that make you feel unsafe — say, a stranger getting too close in the grocery store, or a friend acting outside of agreed-upon behavior — you should first do what you can to mitigate the effect on yourself, Post said. Examples might be offering a coughing person a tissue, or moving onto the grass if people are hogging the sidewalk.

If someone makes a polite request of you, Post said, “really consider having a polite response in turn: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, didn’t realize I was so close.’ ‘Pardon me,’ ‘Excuse me’ are really magic words that transform demands into requests.”

She also noted that, with many friends, it’s worth saying hello again. Plenty of relationships have faded into the periphery over the last year, she noted. Some might have ruptured in disagreement over COVID-19 protocols or political views, while others have wilted from the effects of stress or simple lack of upkeep.

Whatever the reason, Post urged people to try to reconnect, regardless of who dropped the ball. If apologies are in order, that’s a good place to start. Sending a letter or postcard is another way to show care and maintain relationships. “It really is a special thing to receive something that somebody else wrote by hand for you,” she said. Simply acknowledging that it’s been a long time can break the ice and help to rebuild relationships.

“Reaching out is so important right now,” Post said emphatically. “Regaining connection is important. If you feel any kind of inkling toward that, just do it. The reward can be so big. ”

— Molly Zapp


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THOM GLICK

House by the Railroad

My phone burned late into the last nights 

of my pregnancy, casting friends’ photos

blue and flat as closed windows. Sleepless, 

I typed, When will the baby come? into Google.

Her father and I wanted a fresh face around here.

We pushed furniture back and forth across 

the nursery for long months inside. I hung 

a print of Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad” 

over the changing table. People love to say 

that Hopper’s paintings were about isolation, 

but he insisted he just painted the facts. This 

from a man who isolated with his wife Jo voluntarily, 

violently, virtuosically for decades, both dying

in the same apartment in the same year. 

Now the baby’s here and she stares at the painting 

while I change her diaper. She doesn’t look at me 

as much as she looks at that blue house, alone

on the hill, her gaze crossing over and over

the train tracks. We haven’t left the apartment in days. 

It’s safer in here, outside forces pressing evenly 

all around us to keep us inside. I press 

and scatter milk across the couch, thread her mouth 

to my breast with a thin white line. We roam 

the rooms with her in my arms like it’s the whole 

world. I wait for her to know me, know 

her father, like we are the only ones 

she’s ever going to know. 

Meg Reynolds is a poet, artist and teacher in the Old North End of Burlington. Her first book, A Comic Year, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in October 2021.


A Different Animal

How to help your dog adjust to the post-pandemic world

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Walnut - MARGARET GRAYSON ©️ SEVEN DAYS

  • Margaret Grayson ©️ Seven Days
  • Walnut

Over the past month, my partner and I have developed a new hobby. We give our dog, Walnut, a toy, leave our apartment, go sit in the lobby of our building and spy on him. Two cameras placed at different angles in our apartment allow us to monitor Walnut’s every move from our phones. Mostly he lies near the door or climbs the sofa like a graceless mountain goat.

If you’d asked me a year ago what I thought of dog nanny cams, I would have scoffed. But when we adopted Walnut in January, we were told he showed some signs of separation anxiety. Since then we’ve introduced him to a life where my partner and I are home all day, every day, while working remotely. I’m worried that when we’re vaccinated and ready to reemerge into the world, he’ll freak out. So here I am, the definition of a helicopter parent, practicing separation while stalking him in his own home.

I’m far from alone in my concerns. When I asked Emily Lewis, a behavior consultant at Dogs Rock, an Essex Junction-based training center, whether she was hearing from dog owners about separation anxiety, she responded, “Every day.” The well-reported surge in dog adoptions during quarantine has led to trainers around the state being “inundated” with requests for help, she said.

If reading this has you suddenly worried about your own canine companion, take a breath. Lewis said it’s important, first of all, to understand what you’re dealing with.

Separation anxiety is actually a specialized term in dog behavior, referring to when a dog is attached to a specific person and that person’s absence is triggering to the dog. Much more common is isolation distress, which refers to a dog that gets anxious being left alone, no matter who’s leaving. Lewis tests this by having clients leave their dog alone with her for a few minutes.

“If the dog is able to engage with me, remain somewhat relaxed, take food — all of those things indicate … this is isolation distress, versus true separation anxiety,” she said.

There’s also confinement anxiety, which is when a dog is afraid of being trapped in a room, in a crate or behind a gate. But just because a dog doesn’t seem to like being alone doesn’t mean there’s a severe problem.

“Destruction of the house, in and of itself, isn’t separation anxiety. That’s what a lot of people point to: ‘Oh, my God, I leave my dog and my couch is gone,'” Lewis said. “Which is unfortunate, but your dog probably doesn’t actually have separation anxiety. They’re probably really bored and don’t know what to do when you’re gone.”

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Walnut home alone, as seen through a dog nanny cam - MARGARET GRAYSON ©️ SEVEN DAYS

  • Margaret Grayson ©️ Seven Days
  • Walnut home alone, as seen through a dog nanny cam

For the more basic cases, Lewis said owners can make sure their dog has a toy or treat to keep them entertained, and then practice leaving the house for short periods. For a dog that’s merely bored and confused, this can solve the problem.

But if that doesn’t do the trick, or if the dog shows severe symptoms such as fixating on exits, digging and chewing through doors and walls, drooling, pacing, or eliminating indoors, Lewis said, it’s best to call in a professional, “because you can make the problem worse if you push the dog too far, too fast.”

A trainer will assess the problem and establish a training plan, which would likely include desensitizing the dog to departure cues such as putting on shoes, using relaxation protocols to help the dog feel more comfortable and confident, and introducing actual alone time very slowly. The process can take months, though puppies will likely adjust quicker.

Lewis said dog owners shouldn’t rule out medication, either. Anti-anxiety meds can be a stepping-stone or a permanent aid for nervous dogs. “It doesn’t necessarily change your dog’s personality, but it allows them to be their true selves without this giant wall of anxiety between you and them,” Lewis said.

Whatever approach you take, be prepared to be patient, as dog trainers and behaviorists are busy right now. There’s a lot of variety in trainers’ approaches. Lewis maintains a list of trainers, vets, groomers and doggy daycares she likes at vtdogtrainers.com.

“Being patient and waiting for the trainer that you feel like is really going to fit you, your lifestyle and your dog is really important,” Lewis said. “I definitely think it’s worth it.”

— Margaret Grayson


All Together Now

Psychologist Cath Burns on handling the anxiety of social reengagement

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Cath Burns - COURTESY

In the year since the pandemic hit the Green Mountains, COVID Support VT has become a go-to for Vermonters trying to make sense of a senseless time — and maintain sanity and well-being while being disconnected from pretty much everything. The organization’s website is a comprehensive repository of directories, mental health resources, and local and national hotlines that make finding help easy and accessible.

COVID Support VT also hosts regular online workshops on topics such as compassion fatigue, grief and loss, and developing wellness and coping skills.

Until recently, the group’s counselors have primarily fielded inquiries on now-familiar topics such as social distancing, quarantining and the stress of isolation. But as an increasing number of Vermonters are getting vaccinated and looking toward a post-pandemic future, a new sphere of anxieties has emerged.

“What I’ve been hearing in the workshops is stress about ‘How do I go back to my job? I’ve been home 100 percent of the time, and now I’ve gotta go back,'” Cath Burns said in a recent phone call. “‘I haven’t been working with other people, and I’m out of practice. I’ve developed this pattern, and now I’ve gotta go back, or forward, to this new life.'”

Burns is the clinical supervisor at COVID Support VT and a licensed psychologist doctorate who practices privately and at Essex Pediatrics. She said anxiety over going back to work or school is increasingly common among her adult and child patients.

“I’m hearing a lot of kids saying, ‘I want to go back, but I don’t,'” she said. Burns explained that many of those kids are anxious and scared about having to socialize again.

“They say, ‘I’ve been told for a year to keep my distance, and all of a sudden I’m going to be in a building surrounded by people. So how do I do that?'”

It’s a question many adults are asking as well, she said.

“Social skills are a skill like any other,” Burns said. “If you haven’t practiced them for a long time, it’s gonna feel strange.” She then offered a pitch-perfect Vermonty analogy.

“If you don’t chop wood for a year, and then you’ve gotta chop wood, it’s gonna take a while,” Burns said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t know how; it means it might be clunky for a while.”

So how does one practice social skills at a time when socializing is still a high-risk activity?

The answer: very carefully.

“The first thing I tell people is to follow the rules,” Burns said. “Follow the guidance and do what the people who know about this disease are telling us to do. That’s just smart.”

The next thing Burns advises is to start small.

“When you’re starting to run, you don’t start by going five miles,” she said. “You start with a lap around the track. So start with people you trust, doing something you love — ideally outside — for a short period of time, and then build up.

“Follow the rules, start small and do something you like,” Burns repeated. “Too simple, huh?”

— Dan Bolles



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