A year ago, I started sharing questions we might ask ourselves about what it would take to reopen our lives after the initial pandemic shutdown. The not-so-good news is that it took us much longer to get to reopening than most of us could imagine. The good news is that vaccinations are finally making reopening possible!
If you spent much of the last year in the safety of your home (like I did) or a bubble you created with a small group of people committed to keeping each other virus-free, your head may be saying “Woohoo!!” Your body may be signaling “Not so fast, sister.”
Why the disparity in response and what can you do about it?
What an Expert Says
Christine Runyan, clinical psychologist and professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School, spoke on CNN about how our brains changed during Covid and what we can do to work with our minds and bodies as returning to normal is now on the horizon.
In a nutshell, here’s what Dr. Runyan had to say:
- The stress from Covid caused your internal systems to move from homeostasis to hyperarousal or shutdown and detachment while you tried to make sense of the threat.
- Your brain changed due to the threat and you’ll have to do some relearning to come out of it successfully.
- Evolution is on your side and you’ll eventually adapt to the new normal but it’s not going to be an immediate process. And it will be an individual process.
- Your window of tolerance to manage stress has shrunk — maybe a lot or a little. (The same is true for others you interact with.)
- Your thinking mind says let’s all get together. Let’s go to restaurants. But your primitive system has a year of remembering the threat. As a result, you may find your system is very activated, anxious, forgetful, irritable, etc.
- This tug of war between your mind and your body (neurological system, etc.) is human and normal.
So, what can you do to ease yourself and others into the new normal post-pandemic?
In a phrase, practice self-care (the third element of my Work-Life Rebalance Formula). Why? Because managing your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy will set you up for successful reintegration into a rebalanced life — on your terms.
Strategies to Try as You Jump Back In
Let’s use the example of meeting up with friends at a restaurant to think about strategies you can put in place before, during, and after expanding your world. The purpose of the strategies is to reduce the stress you experience as you expand the people and activities in your life. Of course, you can apply these strategies to other situations, including returning to the office.
The guiding principles underlying all of these strategies are to continue to offer yourself and others compassion and grace. Reopening your life is an individual journey that will take varying amounts of time. Your journey is normal.
- Consider what your risk tolerance is for expanding your life. You’ve been doing this for over a year and it remains part of the new normal. Which people and activities are acceptable to the concerns of your circle of family and friends? What physical contact are you comfortable with?
- Use the opportunity to rebalance priorities before agreeing to share a meal at a restaurant. Is this a relationship and activity you want to spend energy on? You get to choose. Just because an invitation is issued doesn’t mean you have to accept. Declining now doesn’t mean you’ll do so in the future.
- Acknowledge and honor your feelings. Maybe you feel a little apprehensive eating inside with others (especially strangers). That’s normal after a year of continually hearing how risky it is. If the thought makes you uncomfortable see if you can push through. If it really feels unnerving then give yourself some time and space before agreeing to eat in a restaurant.
- Think about alternatives that feel like a lighter load. Maybe you could offer to eat outside the restaurant. Maybe you would feel more comfortable going for a picnic in a spacious park. The goal is to stretch your boundaries in ways that are not too stressful. Small steps to reopen your life will increase your socializing endurance and you’ll find your post-pandemic comfort sweet spot before you know it.
- Pace yourself. Don’t overextend by agreeing to meet different groups of people in restaurants for several days in a row, for example. Socializing requires physical energy to get to the meeting place and back, emotional energy to connect with others, and mental energy to focus on the conversation.
- Plan how you will recharge.
- If you’re feeling stressed, accept your feelings whatever they are. Instead of pushing them away, welcome them. They’re part of your experience (and maybe your dining partner’s too). Talk about how you’re feeling.
- Take it slow. Your senses will likely be overstimulated. So much to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Maybe just focus on a few senses and savor them. Next time you can add additional stimulation.
- Change your inner experience by focusing on relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, connecting with nature if you’re outside, or putting your hand on your chest to connect with the primitive signal of being tended to — and therefore being safe.
- Agree to do it again, even if you need some space before the next time.
- Again, you’ve just spent physical, emotional, and mental energy that you haven’t been spending for over a year. You may need some quiet time by yourself or those activities you’ve been doing in the safety of your home that bring a sense of inner calm.
- Pick one thing to be proud of. If eating in a restaurant felt challenging, congratulate yourself for trying and strengthening your socializing endurance. You did it!
- Share your experience with others to help normalize the struggle of reopening your life. As Dr. Runyan noted, your feelings are human — and therefore not surprising or pathological*. The world has experienced a collective trauma and will benefit from collective TLC to heal.
Take good care of yourself and be patient as you re-open your life post-pandemic. You deserve both on this unprecedented journey!
*If, as you attempt to reopen your life, you find you have strong feelings of anxiety or depression that continue day after day, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Some people will have a hard time in the new normal, especially if their Covid trauma includes chronic anxiety or grief. Be sure to check in on family and friends as reopening life begins in earnest. It’s ok to need support!