What a difference a year or so makes. At about this time last year we were all in the belly of the beast – frightened, lonely, anxious, trying to hold our families, bodies and souls together. The tumult and uncertainty of those days won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
But the irony is, many of the COVID-19-avoidance behaviors we got so good at back then are turning out to be tougher to shake than we could have imagined.
As we start to emerge from the (hopefully, metaphorical) caves we’ve been living in, a lot of us are experiencing re-entry stress – and there’s certainly no shame in it. But as we start to return to a more social existence – as in, one with a lot of non-pandemic-pod people in it – there’s no need to let it get the better of you either. Think of re-entry stress as a final phase in our pandemic odyssey, one that requires us to draw on a few of the lessons learned over the last 15+ months, married to a new vision for the road ahead. Though there are no real ‘rules of the road’ just yet, here are a few thoughts on how to ease the transition into post pandemic-life:
Be kind to yourself – and take it slow.
All vaxed up yet still feeling apprehensive about viruses, variants and other microscopic varmints? You’re not alone, and it’s not without due cause. In fact, the American Psychological Association reported that nearly half of adults — 49 percent — say they’re feeling uneasy about returning to in-person interactions. Over the last few months anxiety levels have skyrocketed across the board, even in those who’d experienced very little of it previously – the pandemic last-lap jitters. So, naturally, it’s going to take some time to unwind – no need to rush. Relax, be kind to yourself and remember, you’ve been living in something akin to solitary confinement for quite some time, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t instantly snap back to your old 2019 self.
Adjust your attitude, but remember, there’s no rush.
To start shifting your pandemic-focused mindset, slowly get used to the idea of scaling back some of those ingrained pandemic protocols. If it makes you feel better though, remember hygiene is always in style, and it’s never a bad idea to wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water, just don’t let hand-washing morph into a compulsion. And, if you feel like you still need to wear a mask for a few weeks longer than some other folks might, just do it. Will you get teased a little along the way? Quite possibly, but who cares what others think! Re-entry is a very personal journey and baby steps are fine. For example, to ease out of the non-stop mask-up mentality, mix up your mask-on/mask-off routine, increasing your mask-off time over a period of days, and carrying your mask (aka, facial security blanket) with you, just as you do your wallet, phone and keys. If you’re headed into a shop, riding on public transport, or heading back to a too-cozy office space, mask up if that makes you feel more comfortable (or those around you).
The new social anxiety? It’s called too much, too soon.
If you, like most people, were working hard to avoid others throughout the pandemic, the sudden rush of back-to-the-office routines and beyond-the-pod social engagements can leave you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and anxious. Small wonder. While there are many overdue hugs waiting to be given (maybe pass on the office ones for now), catapulting your social life into overdrive is, for many folks, not the best way forward. Here too, I recommend taking it slow. Unless you’re running for office, the sensory overload (all those hugs!) of socializing 5 or 6 nights a week is hard to maintain, and it was even before the pandemic turned everything upside down. If you were a fairly social person in before-times, say, going out two or more times a week, for now, shift to a less ambitious schedule to give your mind and body some time to process where it’s been. Ease the re-entry by only committing to doing something social once or twice a month to start, and work your way up from there, over time.
What’s new? Um, nothing.
What a lot of people tend to forget is that humans tend to do better mentally and emotionally when there are people or communities in their lives. The last 15 months took most of the people out of our equation, not to mention work, school, a sense of purpose etc., resulting not only in significant increases in mental health problems, but also some loss of the socialization and communications muscles we used to flex hundreds of times a day. Those muscles atrophied like never before. It’s as if, seemingly overnight, we got socially flabby and anxious at the thought of attempting to engage in actual conversation. Though it is a peculiar state of affairs to say the least, rest assured, with more exposure to people and social situations we all will strengthen those muscles in time, just maybe not tomorrow. Until then, as we continue to slowly emerge from our collective caves, and back into the world of people, know that there will be some socially awkward moments along the way, but they’re a necessary part of the re-entry process, so be ready to lean into it.
Reconnect with the power of ‘no.’
If, on some level, you’ve enjoyed aspects of the pandemic-induced down-time and solitude, use this start of the new normal as an opportunity to rebalance how, where, and with whom you spend your time. All that over-booking that might have been your norm back in before times, now may not be who you are anymore. If that’s the case, then retrain yourself to just say no to the extra activities, last minute invitations and requests to make something for the school bake sale. Be conscious of protecting your time and using it perhaps more wisely than you did back in 2019. If you’re concerned about possibly offending a friend or colleague by turning down an invite, when saying no, try to book another date with them a few weeks down the road, once you’ve sorted out your post-pandemic way forward.
Turn the cocktails-and-Netflix ship around.
Let’s be honest, a lot of people significantly upped their alcohol intake to help pass the pandemic time, destress and distract themselves from the grim reality of what was going on around them. Others dove head-first into Netflix and Amazon Prime binge-watching to escape without leaving the comfort and safety of home. Well, the party is over. Now is the time to start cutting your alcohol consumption and couch-bound nights back to 2019 levels or better. It’s also time to get moving again. If you lost ground fitness-wise while life was on pause, do not delay in getting back into a movement and/or regular exercise groove – your life and the quality of it literally depends on it. And if, heaven forbid, we have to deal with a rise in cases in the future, a healthy, fit body will be better able to fight off viral invaders.
Call in the reinforcements.
As so many people continue to struggle with pandemic-related anxiety, despite vaccinations and low infection rates, the question is how to manage what some have called ‘cave syndrome’ or, the fear of stepping out of the pandemic mentality? Depending on the level of severity, professional help – which can easily be done from home – may be the way to go. If you’re feeling uptight about easing your way out of the cave but feel like your situation is not severe and that you may just need more time to re-adjust, then go deep on calming self-care pursuits, like yoga, meditation, sitting quietly in a house of worship between services, spending time in a sauna or hot tub or taking walks in nature. In short, if it feels good and supports your mental, emotional and or physical health, do it. For more support, try adding calming supplements like ‘nature’s valium’ Catecholecalm, caffeine-free or herbal teas; and CBD products to help soothe frayed nerves.
Enjoy your gifts and share them.
Gratitude doesn’t come wrapped up in ribbons and bows. It’s a gift you give yourself and can easily share with others, deepening connections and easing the post-pandemic jitters all around. So, as you return to the world beyond your living room, take a moment to think about all that you have to be grateful for – not what you think you’re missing – and thank God, the universe or whomever for bestowing these gifts upon you. Next, reflect on how lucky you are to have survived, as well as family, friends and loved ones who made it through the dark days as well. Next, let them know how grateful you are to have them in your life. We don’t tell people often enough what they mean to us, so take this ‘new normal’ moment to do something unusual – and speak from the heart.
Rediscover your humanity, as you emerge from the cave.
The re-entry and re-adjustment transition will be easier if you remind yourself each day to practice ubuntu – a Xhosa concept that means, “I am because you are.” In other words, be conscious of how you treat others, even strangers. Look your cashier in the eye when you say thank you; be kind to the taxi driver; offer your seat on the train to someone who looks like they need it. Those little moments of simple, positive connection with others – be they pre or post pandemic – spreads good feeling and brings us all closer together. As Bishop Desmond Tutu has said, “my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well.” So, when it comes to ubuntu, feel free to over-indulge, and give your socialization muscles the wonderful workout they’ve been craving for so long.