By Dr. Elizabeth Palumbo, Psy.D.
As news of vaccines and herd immunity continues to gain speed in reality, it could be safe to say that our lives may be returning to "normal" at some point in 2021. That being said, many people are experiencing an increase in distress and anxiety about this, more so than feeling reassured or relieved. The looming uncertainty of when "back to normal" will be, and what that will look like, are leading some individuals to worry more frequently, and to experience the negative emotions and behaviors that accompany these thoughts about the future.
For example, some may be worrying about having to commute back into the office, and about being around other people on the bus/train/subway, not knowing if others have had the vaccine. Others are concerned that they have gotten used to living a more solitary lifestyle during the past year, and about how exhausting it will be to go back to life outside the house. In addition, many have gotten used to having their spouse working from home all the time, and feel distressed about what they will do without that support moving forward.
Anxiety about post-pandemic life, and going back to "normal," is a real thing felt by many. So for anyone who is feeling increased anxiety stemming from worries about what the future will look like, now might be a good time to prepare some strategies to foster a less stressful transition when the time comes. Instead of spending time stressing, try the R.E.S.T. technique. R.E.S.T. stands for Relax, Evaluate, Set an intention, and Take action, and is an evidence-based strategy for distress tolerance.
Relax: The first step is to pause and take a deep breath. Put some space between your thought and your next action, to prevent you from doing something impulsive. Use your five senses to ground yourself, a breathing exercise, or try a positive visualization. Relaxation helps the brain release calming chemicals versus ones that will increase our experience of distress.
Evaluate: Once your body and mind feel calm, ask yourself, what is happening in this situation? What are the facts? Remind yourself that you do not have to figure everything out right now, you just want to get a sense of what is going on. For example, “Okay, I'm feeling anxious, what is happening? I was just thinking about when they will make us go back into the office for work.” Observe what is happening for you physically, emotionally, and mentally. Ask yourself a few questions like, “How do I feel?” “What’s going on right now?” “Is anyone in danger?”
Set an Intention: Next, it is time to set an intention and do something. First, come up with a plan for what you will do in the moment. What do you need to do right now? Do you need to self-soothe, or do you need to initiate more advanced problem-solving skills to help figure out your next steps? For example, Is there a way to incorporate what worked for you during pandemic times to post-pandemic times? What habits do you want to incorporate and/or what requests do you need to make in order to live the life you want? If you decide that you want to work from home more, plan to draft an email to your boss.
Take Action: Proceed with your plan. Send the email you drafted to your boss, talk to your spouse about how he or she could spend more time at home, join the online movie review group to help take a step back into being social. The key is to proceed as mindfully as possible.
In sum, as we continue to survive through a global pandemic, anxiety about the future and what our post-pandemic lives will look like is real. Use the R.E.S.T. strategy anywhere, any time, to help yourself better tolerate distress, manage anxiety, and come up with a plan to set yourself up for success. It might seem like a lot to do at first, but with practice, these steps could be completed in a short amount of time and could become your new go-to coping skill for distress tolerance during pandemic times and after.
Dr. Elizabeth Palumbo, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist specializing in children and adolescents as well as women's issues, and trauma.