As some communities slowly stir back to life, returning, too, are in-person events, from breezy outdoor park concerts to socially-distanced author talks at local bookshops. But after months of living on edge, getting back to some semblance of normal won’t be as simple as buying a ticket to an exciting event. Even when the threat of transmission is minimal, attracting would-be attendees – and making them feel comfortable at events – will be a new challenge for organisers post-COVID-19. We talked to a psychologist to find out how event organisers and attendees can navigate their anxiety and actually enjoy gathering again.

This article is provided for general information only and is not medical, legal, or professional advice. Eventbrite and Dr. Andrea Bonior expressly disclaim liability for any loss or damage that results from any application of or reliance upon, anything in this article by you, your agents, or your guests. Please consult your doctor, legal counsel, and other professionals for tailored advice regarding your particular circumstances. 

Understanding anxiety

To calm nerves, one must first understand what’s causing the anxiety. “Uncertainty is really tied into anxiety in the most primary way,” says psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior, author of the new book, “Detox Your Thoughts.” 

Everyone has a different level of acceptable risk they’re willing to take, but, with more than a few unknowns remaining about COVID-19 and an abundance of mixed messaging from the media and health authorities, uncertainty abounds. “We do know in terms of the research that unpredictability heightens the stress response,” Bonior explains. “It makes us feel like we don’t have as much power, because everything is uncertain and we can’t necessarily change that.”

Take it slow

Managing that anxiety requires taking things one step at a time. “We’re [past] day 100, in most places, of having had things somewhat shut down,” Bonior says. When it’s safe, resuming “normal” life activities may have some emotional implications. When that happens, Bonior says, “that really is going to raise our anxiety because it’s a shock to the system.” 

Event organisers should also understand and accept that a return to regular event-going may be slow, so ease your audience back into the idea of attending an event. Find some time to reintroduce yourself on social or email before sending an invitation to your next event. Also, for event planners, event schedules may also need to be fluid. “Allow flexibility built in within the event schedule so that things won’t feel that they have ‘gone wrong,’ when the unexpected happens or when things like cleaning take longer than planned.”

Talk it out

Consider encouraging attendees to have a dialogue with one another, which can go a long way. “Communicating clearly is going to stave off a lot of the last-minute conflict,” says Bonior.

In communications with guests, emphasising flexibility and that “[you] understand that attendees may have individual needs and concerns” is important, says Bonior. Having adequate safety protocols and precautions in place (such as the guidelines in Eventbrite’s COVID-19 Safety Playbook for Events) is great, but making sure attendees are aware of them is also key. “Communicate frequently and often, with as many specifics about what to expect as possible,” she says. That includes clearly describing safety precautions in the event listing, sending out safety information in emails beforehand, and detailing protocols in on-site signage on the day of the event. 

Helping event attendees keep their anxiety in check doesn’t mean dismissing it, Bonior points out. COVID-19 transmission is a real risk, complicating the it’s-all-okay narrative upon which many of us might have relied in the past. Having dedicated and accessible staff members who are available to field questions is important – even better, have them trained in listening skills. That means “validating concerns and making the person feel heard before they jump in with a solution,” she says. “Try to encourage a sense of camaraderie and togetherness.”

Acknowledging anxiety is key to taming it. “It’s like, ‘Okay, if this anxious feeling was a teacher, what does it have to tell me?’” Bonior says. Sometimes, anxiety is healthy, reminding people to wear a mask and wash their hands. Sometimes it’s unhealthy, sending a person’s blood pressure through the roof and making them clench their jaw. Knowing the difference is important. For event organisers, a good rule of thumb is that if something causes you anxiety, it will probably set off attendees, too.

Take a deep breath

Bonior encourages both event-goers and organisers to employ a range of mindfulness techniques. First thing is to address the very real, physical ways in which it can manifest. “Breathing gets shallow and faster,” she says, sending the autonomic nervous system into overdrive. The key is to notice and slow it down. “I’m going to slow my inhale and I’m going to slow my exhale and literally count to five,” Bonior says. Inhaling through the nose is important, helping to more quickly flood the system with calming oxygen. Slow exhalations and rolling out one’s neck help to relieve muscle tension.

It’s also important to listen to the voice of anxiety, rather than trying to ignore it. “Step outside of that voice, even just for a moment as an observer,” Bonior says. “Instead of, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get sick,’ you say, ‘I’m having this thought that I’m going to get sick.’” Some people benefit from thinking about themselves in the third person, like, “‘Andrea’s having this thought that she’s going to get sick.’ It allows us some psychological distance to be able to just step aside from those thoughts.”

As we all get back into the world and attend events big and small, learning how to personally assess one’s risk and manage the anxiety that comes with it will be a constant challenge. Accepting that things won’t be exactly like they were before will be part of society’s collective journey. 

“It is going to feel very, very strange,” Bonior says. “That’s going to be the ‘normal.’”

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