We’ve talked so much about managing anxiety during the quarantine, we’ve largely neglected to talk about the anxiety that will surface upon reopening. As many communities begin to slowly reopen, holding outdoor activities and/or small indoor gatherings, people are experiencing a wide range of emotions. Some are so exasperated with the quarantine and eager to regain a sense of normalcy that they’re attending whatever events they can. Others are understandably more cautious and choosing to limit activities until the pandemic is more under control. The stress and anxiety of the last several months is also inducing extremes in society, which exacerbates the situation.
According to a republished article from The Conversation by Adrian Bardon, Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University, “Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes”. To put this into perspective, one must consider the concept of “motivated reasoning”, or the process of deciding which evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers. Natural emotional reactions to the pandemic only intensify the division in communities in regard to coronavirus- and the tendency to politicize the crisis. In short, with so many individuals and communities experiencing bias based on high emotions and ideological influences, anxiety about reopening is expected. Not only that, but it will be intense.
So how can event creators do their part to ease their attendees’ anxiety? The first step is to understand the basis of the anxiety. Obviously, it’s very much tied to fear and uncertainty. From a scientific perspective, there’s still a lot that is not understood about the virus, the way it behaves, and how it will impact the future. Add mixed, highly politicized media messages to the mix, and it’s easy to understand the source of widespread angst.
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
When thinking about how to make guests feel safe at events during these uncertain times, it may be helpful to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. On the hierarchy, the first needs are physiological- think food, water, and shelter. The second set of needs revolve around safety. Before the pandemic, safety needs may have been largely taken for granted; that is, guests assumed they’d be safe at your event unless an anomaly occurred. Now, safety is at the forefront of nearly everyone’s mind, but people and communities are conflicted about what needs to be done to make events safe. Extreme coronavirus denial is prevalent in some communities, which heightens the overall anxiety at events.
Once people’s safety needs are met (at least to the best of anyone’s ability at this time), attendees can focus on other, more enriching and emotional aspects of events. Using Maslow’s hierarchy as a reference point, once safety needs are met, guests can experience feelings of belonging, esteem, accomplishment, and self-actualization.
Keep the Lines of Communication Wide Open
With this in mind, it seems the best way to calm anxiety surrounding events is to communicate clearly, concisely, and with confidence. Prior to and during your event, make clear the precautions and preventive actions you are taking to keep your attendees as safe as possible. For example, when you send emails and communicate on social media, you can say, “This will be an outdoor concert, and despite social distancing rules, all guests will be required to wear CDC-approved masks”. Include a safety guide with detailed, thorough information about all safety practices and rules regarding your event.
Make yourself available and/or staff available for questions in the weeks before your event, and answer safety concerns as promptly as possible. Because it would be unrealistic to answer every individual question, you can refer attendees to your safety guidelines first. Advise them to reach out to you with any concerns that might not be addressed within those guidelines.
Well-placed signage and broadcasting is important, too. With limited budgets, this can be a challenge, but access to digital signage helps reduce printing costs. Routine safety announcements are obviously helpful because they remind people of the precautions they need to be taking as they move through your event, such as adequate hand washing and sanitizing, social distancing, and keeping masks on at all times. Signage conveying the most important safety rules should be highly visible in all areas of your event.
The more stringently those preventative measures are monitored by staff, the safer people tend to feel, and the more they can relax. So make it clear that your staff will be actively making sure all safety procedures are being adhered to throughout the event. It should also be clear that staff members are always available to discuss safety concerns at a moment’s notice.
Signage and broadcasting should also make contingency plans in case of emergencies crystal clear. Guests should know exactly what they need to do and where they need to go if they feel sick or become aware of someone who does.
Adapt to Uncertainty
Generally speaking, the better you adapt to unplanned circumstances that may arise, the better your attendees will adapt. Whether we like it or not, the world we live in has changed; almost nowhere is that fact more clearly evidenced than at events. When reopening, “expect the unexpected” is a good rule of thumb. For example, the length of time it takes to clean before, during, and after your event can be unpredictable. If sanitizing between sessions takes longer than predicted, have an alternate plan for guests to occupy themselves elsewhere, such as a general area with a variety of activities.
Taking preventative measures is obviously imperative because doing so reduces the risk of disease transmission. But following strict precautions and communicating them clearly has another positive effect: It makes attendees feel that there is something they can do to reduce the risk to themselves and others while still enjoying being at an event. The more empowered people feel, the more they can relax and have fun.
Of course, this goes for your staff as well. You should put as much effort into protecting the safety of your staff and putting them at ease as you do your attendees. The more safe and respected everyone feels, the more enjoyable the event will be for everyone.
Put the Focus on Wellness
Since wellness is a primary focus right now, and anxieties are running high at events, make your event as holistic as possible. If you’re running behind schedule, give guests the option to have small, intimate conversations, meditate, or refresh in quiet sections. Or if you can’t divide your space into smaller sections, make sure your main area is spacious enough to accommodate social distancing rules. To relax attendees, have staff or caterers bring them soothing tea, healthy, handcrafted foods, and water; play calming music, offer brief meditation sessions, or offer soothing activities to do between sessions or main events. Placing the focus on wellness distracts people’s minds from illness, which helps ease their anxiety.
Let’s talk briefly about the fight or flight response. Fight or flight is a common, well-known response to anxiety. When faced with a situation that triggers extreme fear, the human body responds by displaying physical symptoms. These can include a racing heart, shallow, rapid breaths, and tense muscles- to name a few.
But it’s important to recognize that the fight or flight response also occurs in response to a perceived threat. For example, if someone once caught food poisoning from a restaurant, eating out may cause extreme anxiety even though the situation is unlikely to repeat itself. The body is reacting to a thought (in this case, a memory) that triggers anxiety. With coronavirus, it’s easy to get anxious just considering the disease and all of its implications. At events, the virus will likely be at the forefront of people’s minds until society settles into a “new normal”, and people accept it. This is natural and expected.
What can you do to ease this type of intense anxiety at your events? Incorporating mindfulness goes a long way. You don’t necessarily have to hire a yoga instructor or Reiki master to guide meditations; you can encourage attendees and staff to use mindful, deep breathing should they become anxious. Calmly suggest breathing in deeply for five to ten seconds, and then slowly letting the breath out.
In conclusion, it’s pretty safe to say that the “new normal” isn’t going to feel quite so normal for a long time, if ever. That’s partly because norms are constantly shifting as communities work to bring the virus under control, and circumstances fluctuate. It can be helpful to remind your attendees that it’s normal not to feel normal right now. These uncertain times may feel unending, but they are not forever. The best possible course of action during uncertainty is to manage anxiety in the moment. And the best way to do this is to be a support system for your attendees, and encourage them to remember that communication is key!