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Reconnecting After COVID-19

Therapists describe "what's next" in mental health and ways you can reintegrate.

By John J. O'Neill, EdD, LCSW, LCDC, CAS

Chokniti Khongchum/Shutterstock
Source: Chokniti Khongchum/Shutterstock

For many, the now months-long response to COVID-19 feels like the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character faces a sort-of purgatory, reliving the same day every time he wakes up. Sound familiar?

Now that we are reconnecting with the world (and people) around us, many are trying to return to so-called "normal life" again. However, jumping back into an old routine could cause anxiety, since people's patterns have been altered by staying home and social distancing for so long.

As daily life undergoes a reset worldwide, my colleagues and I agree that patience has to be at the forefront of everyone's mind as we learn new ways to function.

"People may experience a type of shock if they try to return to their old schedule," says Cynthia Mulder, LCSW, The Menninger Clinic. "By resetting what we value, we find a new appreciation for what we no longer need and what helps us cope."

While learning how to cope with isolation is important, the need to rebuild social connectivity is real. Enforced distancing measures are not only changing our work, family, and travel routines, but they're also changing how we interact with others.

Bottom line, loneliness is bad for your health, and it's likely on the rise. A meta-analytic review, which analyzed results of roughly 150 studies, underlines the relationship between loneliness on our health. It found a lack of social integration was more strongly associated with increased risk of death than were factors such as obesity or alcohol consumption.

While we may crave social interaction, the thought of going out into the world anew might seem scary for some—and that's OK.

"It's normal to be nervous or even feel guilty about reconnecting," says Angela Koreth, MS, LPC-S, The Menninger Clinic. "Assimilating back into society is like getting into a pool, you either dip your toe into the shallow end or you dive headfirst into the deep end. Once you gauge your comfort level, then you can begin to make healthy choices for your post-pandemic life."

I concur with my colleague, for some, wading out into the water might be a happy medium. In fact, it might be hard to re-engage typical systems at the same intensity as before. If that's the case, then consider a gradual reentry. For example, consider shopping at an outside mall where it's easier to establish social-distancing instead of visiting an indoor mall. For others who used Uber pre-COVID-19, the safer decision now may be to drive in order to control the environment's level of sanitization.

As a therapist, I talk about boundaries frequently and I'm not alone; my colleague offers steps we can take to place boundaries on our time and environment in order to gain social connection.

"People might now obsessively wash their hands, clean surfaces more often, and frequently use sanitizer in order to reintegrate into society," says Elissa Bauer, MEd, LPC, The Menninger Clinic. "I think people will also reevaluate how busy they were, and if that’s necessary or sustainable, to help ease their reintegration anxiety."

To gauge our comfort level, and reduce stress levels related to social situations, ask yourself these questions:

  • What, from isolation, do I want to continue?
  • How do I balance my social time and home time?
  • What can I do to keep from booking my calendar full and causing increased anxiety?
  • What am I going to do to take care of myself, whether it be time alone, exercise, or a massage?

We do not know when COVID-19 will end, so we could have a long way to go with this pandemic. There's fear that this invisible enemy could return in winter, so establishing a personal plan now to socially reconnect could be one we revisit for years to come. Practicing cleanliness and social distancing, gauging one's social comfort level, and establishing a check-in with oneself, in order to best manage stress and anxiety, will create a smoother transition back into society.


The Menninger Clinic
John O'Neill
Source: The Menninger Clinic

John O’Neill, EdD, LCSW, LCDC, CSAT directs the outpatient programs at Menninger’s Outpatient Services' location in Bellaire, Texas, where he oversees the practice’s interdisciplinary team approach to assessment and treatment. He is a licensed clinical social worker and chemical dependency counselor whose specialties include substance use; gambling problems; the impact of addictions on professionals, including athletes; sexual compulsivity; and emotional stressors for executives and high-functioning professionals.