As mask mandates are lifted, borders are opened, offices and schools are back in session, you may feel a flurry of mixed emotions. On the one hand, you’re excited and relieved to return to some of your post-pandemic routines. On the other, so much has changed about the world and, likely, about your life, so it may feel unsettling and uncomfortable to be out in the world again. Plus, limited social interaction can create new anxieties, not to mention the ongoing stress for the health of loved ones.
Rather than going full-speed ahead, mental health experts recommend taking a slow, gentle transition. Not only physically, but emotionally, too. Even though we may not have liked being stuck at home, doing so forced us to spend more time with fewer people — and ourselves — and many of us wound up liking it, says psychologist Shari Foos, MA, MFT, MS, NM. “Expect a sudden shift of being around people with fewer precautions after being on high alert for an extended period,” she continues. “We have spent the past year afraid to be around people out of concern we might contract COVID from them, so going back to fitness classes, restaurants, and events with lots of people might be jarring and even anxiety-inducing.”
Evaluate what is important to you.
For many, the pandemic has required flexibility and patience, as our lives have seemingly been turned upside down. And though much of this experience was negative, it’s also likely you’ve learned a lot about yourself. As we move toward a post-pandemic existence, it’s an ideal time to evaluate what’s truly important to you and what changes you could make to be happier, suggests Serena Poon, a nutritionist and reiki master.
For instance, she says you might have realized your prior social calendar was running you into the ground, draining your energy (and your bank account). “As you head back into day-to-day life, you can use that information to remind yourself to schedule fewer events and more self-care days,” she says.
Consider writing down a list of what activities make you feel energized, excited and fulfilled. And then, write down what leaves you feeling heavy and anxious. “Rather than running back to your old life, you can step into a new life that you create,” she adds.
Identify a win and a learning opportunity every day.
During the pandemic, there were some days you rocked every Zoom call, baked a loaf of bread, finished a puzzle, and walked a mile in your neighborhood. Others? You could barely get out of bed. As we transition into our post-pandemic routine, there will be good and bad days, and it’s important to remind yourself that everything won’t go perfectly and that’s okay, says Dr. Missy Wheeler, a counselor with The University of Phoenix. She says to set aside each evening to reflect on the day and think of one thing that went well — and one thing you could improve tomorrow. “Making a plan to do one thing differently can keep us moving forward and ease out the transition,” she says. “Returning to post-pandemic life will be an adjustment, so be kind to yourself and enjoy the moments when you get to do something you have missed doing.”
Face your fears gradually.
While you used to look forward to dining out with friends and mingling with colleagues at the office, these seemingly ordinary activities could make you feel uneasy. After all, you’ve spent the past year and a half avoiding people, so being up-close-and-personal feels wrong. To work through these emotions, psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., suggests a behavioral technique called ‘systematic desensitization.’ In this practice, you gradually expose yourself to what makes you uneasy. In other words: you face your fears at a pace that feels right to you.
To start, Dr. Thomas says you should map out a hierarchy of the least distressing to the most distressing aspects of the situation. Then, you will begin with the least scary activity (say, going for a socially distanced walk without a mask) and keep doing that until you feel better. While you’re going through this exposure, you should practice deep breathing and other calming techniques so you learn to self-soothe.
“The combination of gradually exposing yourself to the stressful situation, along with calming yourself at the same time, can help you gain confidence and courage,” Dr. Thomas adds.
Set — and honor — boundaries.
Real talk: It’s been a scary year, and there is still a lot of fear and uncertainty in the world. And, if you don’t feel comfortable joining your friends at a small, crowded restaurant just yet, you don’t have to, Poon reminds. Though you may struggle with FOMO, it’s also vital not to put yourself in situations that will only make you feel worse. Instead, prioritize self-care and take it easy. There are no expectations since we are all figuring it out as a collective. “Allow yourself the grace to take on new activities when you feel ready. Saying ‘no’ when you don’t feel comfortable is one of the most empowering things to do now and always,” Poon says.
Also, the ‘we are all in this together’ mentality applies during the pandemic and as we ease out of it. If you’re feeling stressed or uncertain, talk to a trusted friend, Foos recommends. “Take turns sharing your struggles and find opportunities to laugh and cry. It will help you both see that you are not alone. Discuss ways to integrate the things that worked during lockdown into your daily life,” she continues. “You may not solve each other’s problems, but being there to hear each other can provide tremendous comfort and renewed hope.”
Don’t worry about being socially awkward.
Believe it or not, you may struggle to talk for a solid two hours at dinner. And, you may say the wrong thing. Or make a funny face, because hey, you were wearing a mask for more than a year. Try your best to be kind to yourself — and don’t worry about acting a little awkward when you start seeing people in person again, Poon says. “If you do find yourself in an awkward scenario, try to laugh it off,” she continues. “It might be helpful to remember that many people are facing some version of the same thing right now. Slowly, but surely you’ll become more confident interacting with people again.”