Embracing Change: How to Nurture Mental Health and Flourish in a Post-Pandemic World
There’s a new normal in town.
The ice cream shop is open. People are out and walking around (and for the most part wearing masks).
The lightness of spring this year almost makes the world feel pre-pandemic, although as we know too well, that’s not the reality.
This spring, the world is changing yet again. And while it’s slowly opening up, things certainly aren’t as they were before COVID-19.
Rather, the country is adding back socialization with a big dose of caution (mostly), which can cause anxiety all of its own.
Even the most simple outing can leave us with questions that would have never crossed our minds in 2019: Are the unmasked people around us vaccinated? Is it now common courtesy to wear a mask, vaccinated or not, for the sake of social politeness? How do we balance our safety and the safety of others with socialization post-vaccination?
Life is very different from one year ago. But, as the world changes, it’s important to remember that we change along with it, whether we realize it or not. When we embrace and direct that change in a positive way, we are sure to change for the better.
While it’s not clear what the final post-pandemic world will look like exactly, the future is bright. Here’s how to harness your positive energy to re-enter the world with a smile (behind your mask).
1. Go at your own pace—and let others go at theirs.
Let’s face it, a crowded room of any kind looks a lot different after a year of pandemic-induced isolation.
Whether it’s a swarm of people physically closer than six feet away waiting at a museum entrance to have their temperatures checked… or the freedom to seat yourself in a public space (do you wipe the seats before sitting down?)… the things that seemed “normal” just over a year ago can now feel so worrisome that they make us want to run back to our cars. Even worse, this anxiety has the potential to prevent us from wanting to leave the safety of our homes at all.
Rest assured, if you feel a sense of panic, you aren’t alone: the fear of stepping out is real.
Also known as re-entry anxiety, the fact is that we all have concerns that we didn’t just over one year ago.
What do the experts suggest? According to an interview in Very Well Mind with Kevin Gilliland, PsyD: go at your own pace.
For some, life before the pandemic included lots of eating out… for others maybe it was dating… or maybe it was visiting children and grandchildren…
Just like social life looked different for different people before the pandemic, re-entry should look different, as well. Prioritize the social activities that were fulfilling to you prior to the pandemic.
Still, expect that not everyone—especially close friends and family members, or even spouses—are on the same page just yet. You might be ready to check out a movie, while your friend that you used to go with regularly isn’t. You might be ready to fly across the country and kiss your children and grandchildren, but you find that your children aren’t ready for that yet. That’s OK.
And the flip side of that coin is that it’s OK to choose not to go certain places or do certain things, even if other people are doing it.
By being honest about your comfort level, and listening to and respecting that of others, you can start to navigate back to normal in a healthy and promising way.
2. Keep the good you discovered during isolation.
Let’s be honest, not everybody hated every moment of the COVID-induced isolation. In fact, for many people, there was a lot of good came out of it—new hobbies, a greater sense of self, deeper relationships, or clarity surrounding priorities, to name a few.
As we all start to move away (or think about moving away) from the safety and comfort of our homes, we might feel a sense of worry about losing some of the good (and the comfort) that we have found in doing things more independently from others.
The challenge—for the sake of our mental health—is to choose not to focus on that worry and instead, set our energy on taking the good with us.
You can accomplish this by pinpointing the positives of isolation before you step out. Did you take your hobby gardening to the next level or get a pet? Did you really commit to going to bed early or doing yoga daily? Did you and your spouse become closer than ever, or did you rediscover an old friendship in isolation? Identify the good and commit to keeping it a priority.
3. Assess your losses openly and honestly.
Even for the most ardent introvert, socialization is good and missing out on social experiences for a year comes at a cost. According to a brief in Health Affairs policy, Social Isolation and Health (released June 22, 2020), “Being socially connected in meaningful ways is actually key to human health and survival.”
Simply put, no matter your pre-pandemic social appetite, the world will not look the same when you come back to it.
After all, what once was considered normal social fare—from using an Uber to passing around hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party—seems to be under hard reconsideration through our new post-pandemic lens.
COVID-19 has caused what some call a double pandemic. These days, as many as 28% of Americans live alone and may have experienced little to no human contact for months. Even for those who don’t live alone, social interactions have been limited this past year in an unprecedented way—inducing some level of loss to be reckoned with.
Coming back to the world will mean coming to terms with what’s been lost—loved ones themselves, missed opportunities with loved ones, or even a favorite restaurant that didn’t survive. Being honest about what we feel we’ve lost—although difficult—will help us to accept the new post-pandemic world as it is.
4. Be flexible.
Re-entering the social sphere is not an “all or nothing” affair, and it’s not without nuance. As your friends and relatives start to invite you places or express interest in meeting in person and gauge yours, answer honestly. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to announce your social comfort level to the world and stick with it. Rather, see what feels comfortable to you. Remember, it’s OK to change course or pull back if the number of cases rises, the social guidance changes, or your personal comfort level changes—no explanation needed.
5. Think (and talk) beyond the virus.
You finally do it—you meet up with a friend who you’ve missed dearly. While it’s certainly OK to chat about the local COVID case count or how you’ve felt this past year and what has changed for you, don’t get stuck only exchanging shared fears.
Rather, talk about your new hobbies, your new technology skills, or how the pandemic has caused you to reassess your priorities. Discussing challenges and growth can help you to relate beyond fear, making your social re-entry outings both positive and beneficial.
6. Practice healthy habits daily.
From healthy sleep to regular exercise, healthy habits are much more than good in theory. When the unproductive, busy mind gets stuck in a rut of worry, it’s good habits that can get it out, according to Carle Marie Manly, Ph.D., in an interview with VOGUE. Whether it’s journaling or talking with friends, “over time, the overactive brain can be trained to let go of the worried, anxious states and enjoy increased calm-inducing, nonreactive moments of quiet,” says Manly.
When it comes to our mental health as we look ahead to what will be the post-pandemic world, there is no one-size fits all approach. Everyone has their own needs that inform their comfort zones, boundaries, and helpful habits. By going at your own pace, keeping a positive attitude, and prioritizing your mental health and well-being, you can move into the next phase of the pandemic in a state of hopefulness that outweighs anxiety and fear.