The concept of "survival of the fittest" has over the years been colloquially interpreted to mean anything from survival of the strongest to survival of the most ruthless, smartest, or most attractive. In reality, what Darwin meant was that biological survival in the big game of evolutionary "Wheel of Fortune" is bestowed upon those who are most adaptable to change. After a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, learning strategies for conscious un-quarantining may help our adaptation and psychological health.
The Psychological Challenges of Reopening
The past year has given us changes that most of us did not foresee. What is more, our brains have not evolved to successfully face constant life-altering amendments to our reality. How do we cope in a world where the past 13 months were spent in an ever-changing “new normal”? Even the expression reveals our inherent need to create a “normal," habitual way of being, however abnormal it may be.
As the world is preparing to gradually begin reopening—stores, businesses, and borders—many are experiencing an increase in mood and anxiety disorders, such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even traumatic stress (exacerbated by multiple collective traumas). While research on the longer-term impact of isolation is still being compiled and will be for the foreseeable future, mental health professionals working on the front lines are seeing a notable increase in phone calls requesting services.
Unsurprisingly, many people are wary of the gradual lifting of restrictions and the new rules that come with it. If you are struggling with navigating the constant changes, you are not alone. Awareness of some aspects of the experience and how our minds and bodies react to it can help identify strategies for successful coping.
Stick to the Basics
The human brain is a big pattern-discerning machine. When it comes to both physical and psychological survival, identifying clear patterns, be it of smells/sounds in a forest full of predators or in a board room full of colleagues, ensures success. In an environment where we are constantly feeling under threat, such as living in a pandemic, reliance on patterns and predictability feels even more necessary. We become unconsciously drawn to it and, as a result, may experience an increase in ritualistic behaviors, obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, and overall attempts at imposing structure and certainty. Constant change of the rules of reopening can cause significant emotional distress and feelings of confusion and disorientation, which, coupled with contamination anxiety, can result in the exacerbation of mental health problems.
One way to cope with ever-changing rules is to keep the safety measures in your household consistent. To the degree that you can, this will ensure that you can take the thinking and rethinking (read: obsessing) out of the equation. If you are unsure about what appropriate measures are—the CDC guidelines continue to change as we learn more—stick to the basics: masks, sanitizer, and six feet apart could not hurt even if you have been vaccinated. However, if you are concerned about your subjective experience of anxiety or OCD symptoms, and they are causing a lot of distress or functional impairment, seek help. A qualified therapist will be able to guide you through managing your anxiety and teasing apart appropriate concern with safety measures versus an overexaggerated panic response.
Combat Planning Fatigue
I have written more extensively on planning fatigue previously, but suffice it to say, we are all tired of overthinking everything. Did you put the mask and sanitizer in your purse? Has everyone at the gathering been tested? Bring your shopping list with you, don’t wander around, map your route inside the store! Our unconscious makes us all more efficient by automatizing certain processes, but due to COVID, we have had to change multiple scripts for how we behave outside of our homes (and, sometimes, within). It has been exhausting.
The most effective way to combat planning fatigue may be to accept and wait it out, while simplifying your daily routines. Due to constantly changing rules, we may not be able to habituate to much these days. Simplifying your routines will ensure that fewer aspects of your day-to-day are constantly shifting, while also giving you some space for introducing some excitement.
Find one thing that gives you joy, perhaps a new tradition of trying an unfamiliar family board game every few weeks, and do more of it. At the same time, eliminate as many aspects of daily living that may hide unexpected challenges. This is not to say that we must quit striving to run that marathon or pursue our dream of becoming a better public speaker—only that it is important to prioritize while we are weathering the storm.
Find Your Tribe (and Maintain Good Boundaries)
Research shows that people who endure tragic or life-threatening events, such as natural disasters, fare better when they can rely on interpersonal and community support. There is something about going through trauma together that makes it less traumatic. Remaining securely attached while going through something difficult buffers against lasting psychological impact.
However, as some are getting vaccinated and others are not, as healthcare workers continue to see death daily on the frontlines and the country is vehemently divided over safety measures, we have seen significant fracturing in our sense of belonging this past year. This fracturing, as states are loosening guidelines, is now felt even more within our small ecosystems, such as family and friend groups. Some are comfortable taking their masks off and others are barely able to socialize outdoors without experiencing panic. This creates a fertile ground for conflict and feeling judged.
It is crucial, then, to identify those of your loved ones who share the same level of concern and precaution, and set good boundaries with those who do not. Doing so will allow your mind to rest, rather than constantly re-evaluate safety measures with each interaction.
Brené Brown defines boundaries as, simply, “what is OK and what is not OK.” Ask yourself what you are OK with and stick to it.
Give Your Body Time to Adjust to the New Boundaries of Personal Space
If you, like many others, are having a hard time imagining talking to people again and being able to see their mouths move in person, you are not alone. If hugging others or the mere thought of someone brushing against you at a crowded restaurant makes your skin crawl, well… you are not alone there, either.
The concept of embodied cognition posits a close connection between our thoughts and bodies. And our physical beings have experienced an unprecedented expansion of our personal space (not to be confused with the extreme limitations on our physical and social space) in the past year. How we physically position ourselves in the world, our situational awareness, and our bodily sensations are closely connected to thought and emotional processing. It follows, then, that once all restrictions are gone, and we return to our pre-COVID lives, our bodies may experience discomfort.
You may find that you are jumpy when someone walks close to you. Irritability in crowded spaces may not be far behind. Many have quite literally been living in a 6-feet-wide bubble. Reducing that radius of personal space again, while simultaneously expanding our social and environmental radii, can be taxing on a nervous system that is geared towards protecting us from danger.
If you find your anxiety, startle response, frustration level, or overall reactivity increase, remember to allow yourself some time to adjust. Perhaps do it gradually—only socialize in small groups, for example, or take trips to the store during slower hours. Remember that your reactions are not abnormal; rather, they are a response to abnormal circumstances.
However, if they do become overly distressing and you find yourself unable to manage, talking to a therapist can help you move forward. To find one near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.