As we navigated the frightening and uncertain waters of the COVID-19 pandemic these past 14 months, we may have experienced a whole range of emotions including but not limited to depression, anxiety, fear, boredom, anger, and frustration. Although it was a collective trauma, the experience wasn’t exactly the same for any two people. And now that the curtain is lifting and we are beginning to see the light, we can’t expect those emotions to suddenly disappear.
As we enter this next phase we will likely experience a new range of emotions. As a psychotherapist, I encourage you to allow yourself to go through this process at your own pace, one which aligns with your individual needs. I can’t stress that enough. You may be feeling a level of pressure as you look around and see others diving back into pre-pandemic behaviors more quickly than yourself. But, please remember that this isn’t a race and that your peace of mind is what matters the most. Forcing behaviors that don’t feel right may only result in more distress.
In my work with clients throughout the COVID crisis, it has become clearer than ever how quickly and unexpectedly our lives can be turned upside down and how subsequently we can be forced to deal with so many resulting and difficult emotions.
While there was a common thread centered around fear of illness or death from contracting the virus, I discovered among my clients many subjective experiences occurring simultaneously. I had met with front-line workers who were feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Others were parents who were at the end of their ropes trying to figure out how to keep their jobs while also providing home-schooling for their children.
Many of my clients were experiencing depression, isolation and loss of purpose after being laid off or furloughed. They were dealing with paralyzing anxiety over an uncertain future, loss of income and possibly losing their home. Still others flowed through the process a bit more easily, as they filled the void with new found hobbies and creative endeavors.
So now as we begin to transition back into the world, we are faced with some new and possibly mixed emotions. We may be feeling a sense of relief that the vaccines have proven effective and that the CDC no longer requires masking or social distancing for vaccinated individuals in certain parts of the country.
However, those very same lifted requirements may also be causing some anxiety, because those restrictions made us feel safe and protected. They gave us a sense of control over our environment. While we may intellectually trust the new guidelines and the effectiveness of the vaccines; our emotions may not be in synch. Perhaps we just don’t feel ready to drop our masks and go into crowded spaces or start traveling again. It may feel too abrupt to suddenly resume our former way of life.
After months of isolation, many of us may now feel pressured to go back to the office, look for work or attend social gatherings. However, there may be a sense of reluctance due to remaining uncertainties about the duration of vaccine effectiveness and the threat of new variants.
I want to reassure you that any hesitation that you are experiencing is OK. We have been living in a traumatized world. For over a year we have been haunted by images of people on respirators, and listening to tragic stories of death around the globe. We have been masking, sanitizing and isolating. Graduations were cancelled, weddings postponed and funerals couldn’t be held. Our lives and our world were transformed in ways we never could have anticipated or imagined.
It is so critical to be patient with yourself and understand that there will be varying responses to the post-pandemic reopening. There will be some who will easily make the transition. They will shed their masks and fearlessly hop on a plane for a long overdue vacation. They will hug friends and resume attending social gatherings, restaurants, concerts and movies theaters.
Please understand, there is no right or wrong response here. We are all individuals with our unique approach to life. Some of us are innately more cautious, while others less so. The goal is to find what feels right for you.
Below are some tips to help reduce the fear and stress that you may be feeling amidst the COVID reopening.
- Ease In. Make incremental changes based on your level of comfort. Start with one or two short, simple errands to less crowded places and then gradually get out more each day. Take a breath and slowly begin to change those ingrained habits of avoidance. Let your gut guide you. This may be a trial and error process.
- Communicate Boundaries. Rather than not seeing others at all, decide how to do so within your comfort zone. For example, let friends know if you prefer to meet outdoors, or if you aren’t sharing hugs yet. Be open about your preference to wear a mask or just meet one-on-one. Begin by getting some dates on the calendar so you can slowly and safely renew your relationships and activities.
- Structure Your Day. Get up, get dressed and get moving! It is important to have a plan each and every day. This can mean taking a walk, working in the yard, decluttering your closet, meeting a friend for coffee, or doing an errand. If you need to find a job; make some time each day to update your resume, reach out to your network or search on-line employment sites. Feeling productive can do wonders for your mental health.
- Embrace Teletherapy. If you are really feeling immobilized at the thought of re-entry consider talking to a therapist on-line. There are many excellent professionals willing and available to offer compassion, encouragement and effective strategies to help you comfortably ease back into life.
- Practice Self-Compassion. Try not to compare yourself to others and their approach to re-entry. Acknowledge that you have experienced a major upheaval in your life and that you are in a period of transition. Add some nurturing activities to your day such as yoga, exercise, nature walks or journaling. Then be proud of yourself for any progress you have made so far.
While returning to daily life is a welcome transition for some, it is worrisome for others. It may not be easy to shed all the rituals and precautions you adopted this past year. But with some gradual, incremental steps and the support of others it can be achieved.
I have been in constant communication with my colleagues throughout this pandemic and our mission is to offer assistance, hope and encouragement as we cross this bridge together. If you are feeling overwhelmed please reach out. You don’t have to navigate this transition alone!