- The transition to “normal” activities post-COVID vaccination may bring unexpected anxiety and stress.
- Go slowly as you ease back into your old routine, and remember that there is no right way to feel about it.
- Set aside time for self-care during this period of change.
Spring looks to be a time of transition for large numbers of people in the United States, as millions of adults are being vaccinated against COVID every day, and millions of students are returning to in-person classrooms for the first time in a year. For many, with vaccination (and the requisite wait for it to confer its protection) comes new possibilities and signs of hope. From gatherings to travel plans, there is much anticipation for the return of activities that people have gone without for months on end.
But with that hope often comes the expectation that everything should feel purely happy and comfortable; that positive emotions should completely outweigh negative ones; and that returning to "normal" life will be a simple, smooth transition full of joy and ease. This mindset, however, is not only unrealistic, but it actually makes the transition more difficult. It sets unduly rigid expectations for what a return should look like, both behaviorally and emotionally.
When disruption goes on for an entire year, no matter how uncomfortable that disruption, it becomes a form of "normal" in and of itself. This many months in, we are used to a locked-down version of life just through behavioral conditioning alone. Ironically, this also means that the return to normal—no matter how much we want it—then becomes the disruption. I am working with many clients who have been surprised by the amount of anxiety that has cropped up just as they are finally getting to do the things they've been dreaming of. They may have an unexpected panic attack after going to a crowded restaurant, have new trouble sleeping when they think about their kids' sport carpools starting up again, or just be worried about the possibility of having to fit into their old professional clothes.
Of course, it's vitally important to still follow the science and assess your level of risk realistically, even if you have been vaccinated and waited the requisite amount of time. Preparing psychologically to return to normal does not mean that it is safe for everyone to do so. And please don't succumb to the mindset that just because the world seems to be opening up, everything must suddenly be far safer than it was before.
But if it is medically safe for you to resume new activities, remember, anxiety during transitions is natural. And arguably, the transition back into "regular" life is just as big as the original transition that limited all of our lives in the first place. Not only are we out of practice when it comes to a variety of daily types of social interactions, but we've spent a year being conscious of the risk that those activities carried. So, as you move forward, your mind and body will likely experience some stress, and that's OK. Here's what to keep in mind to mitigate the effects.
1. Watch your pace.
No matter how excited you are, it will be helpful to ease yourself into new activities and allow a buffer between them. Physically and psychologically, you may be more exhausted than you expect by the types of stimulation you've gone without for 12 months. Don't do several new things at once, and don't pack your schedule full if you've become used to a lack of structure. Build in time to process and adjust after every new boundary that you've pushed through, and be honest with yourself about whether you are going too fast. Even some dyed-in-the-wool extroverts may be surprised by how tired they get after even a brief social activity.
2. Get rid of the "shoulds" when it comes to feelings.
Many people are beginning to feel anxiety about what their life "should" look like. Maybe they're vaccinated but still feel unready to go back into an office. Maybe after talking about how much they missed their friends they now are not feeling particularly excited to gather with them in person. Maybe they were exhilarated for the idea of that first post-vaccination vacation—and now it feels like it is falling flat and they wish they hadn't spent so much money on it. It is hard to predict how you will feel, but there is no right or wrong reaction. Don't add to your own pressures by believing that you "should" feel a certain way.
3. Communicate clearly.
Much as it was helpful to communicate boundaries clearly over the past year, when there were often differences of opinion about what represented an acceptable risk, it will continue to be helpful for you to bear those same concepts in mind going forward. Don't be afraid to say no to things you are not yet comfortable with; don't over-personalize differences of opinion about what is OK to do and what isn't; and listen and speak respectfully when it comes to negotiations with friends and family about what is reasonable for gatherings, celebrations, and trips. When things get heated, pause first before speaking and try to observe what's going on for you in your body. This allows you to counteract some of your agitation and calm yourself down before escalating things further.
4. Increase your self-care.
It's easy to assume that as you make room for more joyful and exciting experiences in your life and crawl out from what might have felt like monotony, that your mind and body will automatically take care of themselves, and you won't need as much sleep, downtime, healthful eating, or attention to your mental health. In truth, the opposite is most likely—any disruption to what you've grown accustomed to can take a toll on the body and mind, even if it's a welcome disruption. Prioritize all the same self-care techniques that were important during the initial stress of lockdown.
5. Welcome your feelings, as an observer.
Much like observing your bodily sensations can be helpful in order to not escalate a conflict unnecessarily, it is also immensely helpful to observe your feelings as well. Be compassionate but realistic with yourself about what you're feeling when you begin to transition toward the lifestyle that you used to have. Fear? Guilt? Resentment? Excitement? A sense of loss? Disappointment? All of these emotional experiences have been identified by my clients as reactions—and those reactions are 100 percent human and 100 percent OK. The more you can adopt the mindfulness techniques of being gentle and curious about your emotional experience—neither judging yourself for it nor getting wrapped up in it—the less it will overburden you with negative feelings about the feelings, like shame, that only add to your distress.
6. Remember that it is a process.
As much fun as it may be to fantasize about the "first" thing we'd do in a post-COVID world, or name our top five priorities for when life gets back to normal, the truth is, the lines between before/during/after are anything but clear-cut. The return to something that resembles pre-COVID life will likely take far, far longer than how long it took to go from normal to lockdown in the beginning of the pandemic. It is a gradual process, with different milestones, different levels of risk, and different timelines for different activities with different people. Most of all, be patient with yourself, and with others. The more we can embrace this transition as a path to keep moving forward on, rather than a switch to be flipped, the more ready we'll be for bumps along the way.