With vaccine distribution increasing and states relaxing restrictions on indoor gatherings, many of us are contemplating the prospect of resuming activities long abandoned over the last year. Some people can hardly wait to board a plane for a Hawaiian vacation or gather at a favorite restaurant with friends; others are feeling, as one patient of mine put it, “not ready for things to go back to ‘normal.’”
And what does “normal” even mean in the current context?
We know from studies conducted after the quarantines imposed during the SARS epidemic that the mental health ramifications of even short (more than 10 days) periods of enforced isolation are not trivial. Reactions included post-traumatic stress disorder, avoidance behaviors, and anger, lasting in some people for several years. Research conducted in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic is already uncovering similar—and even more pervasive, given the duration—patterns.
The absence of in-person social interactions over the last year may make it especially hard to go back to seeing people face-to-face (or, mask-to-mask, as it likely will be for quite some time) for those prone to social anxiety. Avoidance is a prevalent coping mechanism, albeit not a healthy one. It might relieve anxiety in the short run but over time, avoiding triggers backfires because it prevents practice.
Returning to the office or seeing friends in the flesh might feel awkward because social skills have grown rusty. And heightened body awareness might add to the uneasiness. Wearing “hard pants” after a year of working from the couch in sweats can feel strange and uncomfortable, especially for those (22% by one estimate) who have put on some weight during the pandemic.
People with OCD may fear seeing even fellow vaccine recipients unmasked and cling to washing and decontamination rituals adopted early in the pandemic, even if they are no longer deemed necessary. The over-estimation of danger is a thinking style common to all anxiety disorders. And as one recent study showed, news reported by media outlets in the US skewed overwhelmingly negative—87% of COVID coverage in national US media, compared with 64% in scientific journals, emphasized bad news—adding to the atmosphere of threat for those hypersensitive to it.
Even in the absence of preexisting mental-health issues, nearly all of us will experience some degree of post-traumatic stress, complicating our return to a BC (Before COVID) life. The trauma of actual illness and of losses—of lives and livelihood for many—have left deep emotional scars. Navigating the reentry into the world will take time, patience, and understanding, of others and ourselves. We all are grappling with a confusing mixture of emotions: excitement, fear, and even nostalgia for the early days of quarantine, when decisions were more black-and-white and unambiguous, and a sense of being “in it together” prevailed. Current times present a much higher level of uncertainty, making life far more complicated.
Acknowledging difficult feelings and allowing them to surface rather than trying to push them away are important strategies for coping with any challenge to emotional equilibrium. The road to the new “normal” will be rocky. But cultivating an attitude of acceptance will make the path less treacherous.
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