It has been slightly over one year since the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly turned our world upside down. We all had to suddenly adjust to the “new normal” of mask-wearing, changes with work and school, disruption to our social lives, and, not to mention, a shortage of previously taken for granted items such as cleaning supplies and toilet paper. Many of us struggled with heightened levels of distress, including anger, anxiety, fear, depression, grief, and an increase in addictive behaviors in order to cope with inner turmoil. Many people experienced what was termed to be “collective grief”— everywhere across the globe, people were grieving the loss of life as we knew it, the loss of our usual routine, the loss of normal social interactions, and ultimately a loss of control over our lives. The pandemic was truly a traumatic experience for many, as trauma can be defined as any experience that is too overwhelming for our system, a situation in which we feel helplessness to help ourselves or others, or when we encounter a threat we weren't prepared to handle.
Over the past few months, we have begun to round the corner of the pandemic, with more businesses and schools returning back to normal-ish, looser mask mandates, less restrictions on social gatherings and increasing availability of the coronavirus vaccine. Many people are breathing a sigh of relief and are feeling a sense of excitement as life gradually returns back to status quo( even though we are still far from it in many ways). But what about people who may not be experiencing this relief and excitement? What about those individuals who have actually found some sense of comfort and relief as a result of the pandemic and may instead be experiencing anxiety, fear and reluctance as things begin to go back to the way they were? Some individuals who have struggled with social anxiety have mentioned that their anxiety had decreased during the pandemic due to less opportunities for social gatherings and being able to use “it’s a pandemic” as a reason for not going out. Some individuals with PTSD have reported experiencing a relief as places were less crowded and less noisy, as crowds and noisy environments were a trauma trigger for them. Some children have found comfort in being online for school, due to not having to face peers if they felt anxiety or if they had been bullied at school. Some individuals with body image issues have had less triggers for their body shame due to being able to hide behind a computer screen all day, not having to eat as much in front of others, and being able to stay home last summer instead of donning their swimsuit and wearing shorts and tank tops in front of others.
So, while one might be exclaiming “Thank goodness we are going back to normal!”, someone else in the same conversation or room may be silently thinking “Ugh, I’m dreading things going back to normal.” People may be experiencing an increase in anxiety with going back to work or school in person due to the pressure to socialize if they are an introvert or struggle with anxiety; some may still be very fearful of the virus, experiencing reluctance to get back out there, and experience increased fear in seeing others gather without masks; children may dread going back to school out of fear of encountering their bully once again, or fear of how they will fit in and belong, given how some have been more socially distant in the past year; some may dread resuming family gatherings and dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics again; some may dread being around others more due to self doubt and insecurities that arise in social situations; some may be fearful of having to deal with more crowds; some may have to cope with increased body image distress, due to it approaching swimsuit and hot weather clothing season, especially if they have gained weight due to overeating or less physical activity over the past year. Not to mention that in general, any change is stressful, as it is yet another adjustment to our usual routine and way of life. We have to adapt again, after some may have just started getting accustomed to pandemic life.
How can we be mindful of the fact that not everyone will feel the same about emerging from the pandemic? We can use our skills of communication, empathy and compassion. We can communicate with others openly by asking how they feel about some aspects of life going back to business as usual, and parents can ask their children if they have any worries about going back to school in person or spending more time in social interactions. Parents can ask their children how comfortable they are with resuming extracurricular activities and respect if their child feels more comfortable with gradually resuming social interactions. We can use empathy to understand and validate others’ feelings and seek out to understand why they may be struggling. We can harness compassion for others, realizing that each person may feel differently about the current state of the world, and harness self compassion if we are one of the individuals that are fearful or anxious of emerging back into the world. We can seek out support from a therapist if we are experiencing significant emotional distress in response to all of the changes over the course of the past 14 months. We can continue to do our best to take care of ourselves, as well as to support others, with the understanding that the effects of the pandemic are still very real, and at times, unspoken.