Question from a reader: How do I deal with the aftermath and continuation of the pandemic? I feel like I can’t go anywhere without having a mask on, and I get anxious when someone gets near me at the grocery store?
You are not alone in dealing with such questions and situations. Take a breath and remember to be kind to yourself. When we are in survival mode, whether it be fight, flight, or freeze, our nervous system is no longer socially oriented where we feel connected to ourselves, to others, and to a higher purpose. As we emerge from the pandemic, our nervous system needs to re-calibrate back into the socially engaged status. How do we know we are there? We know we are there by feeling that we are in our “element” again, feeling safe in our bodies, minds, and spirits, and in relationships and community. This is where we find it easy to connect to ourselves and others. We start to live in a world full of possibilities, full of trust and willingness to take risks to grow and explore.
The first step is acknowledging that we all have been changed by the pandemic as we emerge. Exactly how we have changed may take some time to realize. And that is ok. We don’t need to know the answers right away, and each of us will leave our way into our own unique answers.
Remember that as we emerge from the pandemic, we as a collective are having many “first time in over a year experiences.” Take time to reflect on your upcoming “first time ever since the pandemic” event. Don’t rush yourself through the event or the experience. Be gentle with yourself and check in with how your body feels. You may feel nothing in your body, or you feel some tightness in your chest or difficulties breathing. Be gentle with yourself and accept your experience as it is without judgement. Remember, there is no right way to emerge. The right way is in the making, as you go.
Many of us have been out of touch with families and friends. Most of us spent time at home searching for something to watch on TV, or to eat in the fridge. Many report a growth in the waistline as a side effect of the pandemic! While spending so much time alone at home felt like solitary confinement to some, the opposite is also true. Being crammed into a room with too many family members can be challenging. Conflict, emotional, and physical altercations are likely to happen. Take stock of what your body feels when you are around family and friends now without judgement. It is ok to take breaks from being around family and friends. Pandemic social overwhelm is real!
From a mental health perspective, anxiety and depression have increased since the pandemic; 2 in 5 adults are likely to have depression and anxiety. Others report their sleep worsening or having brain fog. From a neuroscience perspective, executive functions like planning, focusing, and abstract thinking are impaired when the person is under stress. So, you may find yourself sluggish or doubting yourself as you emerge from the pandemic. If you notice that your mood or sleep have changed, consult with a mental health provider.
Remember that the impact of the pandemic is also different for different people. Some people like the quiet of reading books, and others do not want to be stuck at home. As you take stock of your life, and reflect on what is normal and what is meaningful, you may want to ask yourself: what events, habits and relationships have I let go of during the pandemic? How do I feel about that? Am I happy and relieved that I didn’t have to do them, and now the more I think about them again, do I get more stressed? Or does it bring me joy again?
One thing for sure is that we are not going to “go back to normal.” Normal will need to be redefined for each individual, family, community, and workplace. Whatever it is that we are going through won’t truly be over. Rather than looking for who we are now, we should consider approaching the emergence experience with an open mind and curiosity. Nobody knows the right way to do it. Be kind to yourself and others as we all navigate this new era.
Dr. Abu Ata