The Potential Stress of Returning to “Normal”

by Beth Granet, PsyD

Preparing ourselves for and adapting to the restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic has been emotionally taxing to say the least. Many of us have had to practice our highest levels of flexibility and attempts at “going with the flow.” We have adjusted to everchanging rules and standards about when and how to return to offices, whether our children would be back in school, if we could travel or go on vacations, or whether we could even go visit loved ones again. Although there is variability in our individual comfort levels in terms of vaccination status, social distancing, and gathering, we have all experienced isolation to some degree over the last year and a half. So, when restrictions began lifting, many of us experienced a confusing array of emotions.

Although some may have been thrilled about the prospect of normalcy, others likely felt pressured, nervous, or guilty for not being more excited about the idea. After being in the comfort of your own home, you or your children might feel uneasy about your health and safety, or perhaps even be anxious about the possibility of having lost some social skills over the months. In general, social anxiety involves fear of social situations, especially when there is the possibility of being observed or criticized by others. Individuals with social anxiety typically fear that their nerves will be perceptible by others or they will face rejection or ridicule. Whether or not you or your children experienced some of these feelings prior to quarantining and isolating, it has become increasingly common to develop this type of discomfort after an extended time without in-person socialization. Now with the return to offices, school buildings, extracurricular activities, and social gatherings for us and our families, how do we handle these anxious feelings? Here are some helpful suggestions for managing our “return to normal:”

Boundary setting and communication

Maybe you had been looking forward to hugging or shaking hands again, or perhaps you still feel most comfortable being socially distant. Or, maybe it depends on the person, place, or situation. Regardless, we must each take the time to decide what our own boundaries and comfort levels are with physical and social contact and clearly communicate these to others. For example, if your child can only spend time without a mask on when in the presence of certain other children, you need to make other parents aware and hold your child accountable to maintain this, depending on their age. Be polite when talking to others about your preferences, but be clear as well. Try to suspend judgement and respect when others’ boundaries are conveyed to you.

Remember you are not alone

Despite varying comfort levels with our health and following restrictions, remember that most people have had some degree of working from home or doing virtual schooling. Therefore, everyone is a little out of practice! You and your kids have likely been able to talk to others via video or other virtual platform, so if there is anxiety around your ability to hold a conversation, try and remember that you have practiced more than you realize. Ask questions, show interest, and use humor when possible. Maybe even make a joke about how you ran out of things to say! It is a common experience now to feel uneasy when first re-entering social situations, so the other people you are interacting with are probably paying attention to their own awkwardness more than yours.

Go slowly if you need to

After gauging you and your family’s comfort with restarting your social lives, maybe it makes more sense to ease into things instead of jumping right in with both feet. Although you and your children might be tempted to fill up your calendars again, it is perfectly acceptable to take it in steps. For example, only playing on one sports team or committing to one club or extracurricular at a time is a fine strategy while your child gets used to being in school again. You can take it one gathering at a time and see how you feel at each event instead of booking yourself up all at once. Try to take things in steps and be kind and understanding towards yourself and loved ones with the pace where things feel most comfortable.

Start getting used to it

In addition to taking things slowly as needed, you can also get yourself and your family more acclimated to social settings in incremental ways. Start by considering how much you have been isolated or not and use that as a jumping point. For example, maybe you have been home most of the time and it makes sense to start out by just going outside the house more, being the one to do the grocery shopping, or going on walks. Perhaps you have already been out and you can start getting used to being around more people by going to your favorite department stores or gathering in larger groups with others (considering their safety and comfort). Try driving to your office and walking around, going afterhours, or taking your kids to their school playground to get everyone used to the idea of being in those spaces again.

Do what works

After experiencing all the changes and anxiety of this year, you and your loved ones have probably already been using some great and effective coping strategies. Do not forget to keep doing these things as you re-enter the world. You may have already found calm or stress management through healthy habits such as exercise, a good sleep routine, deep breathing, or other activities. Continue doing these things and lean on those that both support and challenge you in healthy ways.

Being mindful of these suggestions should be helpful as we move into a more normal social life. It is important to realize that when it comes to any type of anxiety, our anticipation of how we might feel is often much worse or more uncomfortable than the actual situation. Look out for your negative thoughts and compassionately remind yourself to stop picturing the worst possible scenario or outcome, and start being more realistic. Since we have been physically distant, there is no longer such a thing as a “normal” social protocol. We are all figuring this out as we go along and can work together as we acclimate. Remember these tips and seek help from a trained mental health professional if you find yourself struggling with these adjustments and needing more support. Sometimes it is the awkward laughter or moments that make life more fun!