Here we are, in September 2021, 18 months after the COVID-19 virus was declared to be a pandemic. Governments responded by imposing an emergency lockdown. We all became familiar with words like lockdown, isolate, bubble, quarantine, and zoom. We saw the bustling cities and towns we were used to begin to look like ghost towns. The hugs of family and friends, the get-togethers for coffee and dinner were replaced with virtual meetings, or if we were lucky, backyard picnics with six feet separating us from those outside of our households.
Now that a large portion of the population is vaccinated, and rates of infection seem to be on a downward trend, our governments are beginning to introduce the reopening of non-essential public places. Larger social gatherings are allowed, restaurants have reopened to various degrees, as have shopping centres, gyms and recreational centres. But as many articles on this subject have noted, not all of us feel the same about going back to the way things were.
Some of us are really excited as things open up, some of us are kind of excited and a little nervous, while others of us are quite happy to remain in our safe place and are downright scared about going out and about again. This is not surprising given that we have different personalities (extraverted/introverted, cautious/adventurous), different opinions about COVID or vaccine issues, and belong to social groups that may have different perspectives about going back into the public.
Our lives under lockdown required a huge adjustment. Many of us disliked being restricted; many of us felt a loss of freedom of going wherever we wanted; many of us felt grief over losing in-person contact with friends and family, and even our hairstylist. Many of us struggled with depression and anxiety brought on by extended isolation and these kinds of losses. Never before, in our generation, did the entire population have to deal with being deprived in this way for such a long period of time. This has been especially hard for those living alone or those of us who have few social contacts, as well as the extroverts among us.
Now, as we are able to go to more public places and events and have more social contact, we will also have to readjust to our “old normal”. Cases of COVID are still being reported, so it isn’t an “all clear” situation. Because our bodies and minds may have felt a sense of threat or potential danger when there were reports of high rates of Covid cases, we have very likely been tense and anxious whenever we have been out. As the risk of catching the virus gets very low and we are able to go to more places and see more people in person, our bodies now have to unlearn this response. People with disabilities are recognized to be a vulnerable group and so this may have caused increased stress for you and your family. It will take some time for our brains to get used to increased exposure to others, even as life is safer from the virus. So how can we deal with this transition in as healthy a way as possible?
I have put together some suggestions from various circulating articles that might assist us:
1. First of all, recognize that it is an adjustment for everyone and that the “rules” are still changing. In other words, expect that you will feel uncomfortable, maybe even fearful, as you shift from your small circle to one that is larger.
2. To compensate for this discomfort, take small steps. As you get used to that step, challenge yourself to do a little more. We want to be careful not to make isolation our normal when it’s no longer necessary.
3. Even as you take these steps, recognize an early point I made: we’re all different. Know and accept what you’re comfortable with. The comfort level of others may be different and that’s okay. As social beings, we compare ourselves with one another. That’s natural. But we need to be aware of letting this affect our behaviour. You may need to say no to an invitation when you’re not ready for that particular situation. You may need to ask another person to give you a little more space because you’re not quite comfortable being so close to others. This is a hard thing to do and you may need support from others to prepare yourself mentally to say this. Practising it in your imagination a few times as such an event draws near is often helpful. You might even discuss expectations with the people who will be there beforehand so that people’s comfort levels are known and respected.
4. Change is stressful for all of us, even positive changes. The unique thing about the pandemic is that what’s okay one day, might not be the next, and what’s not okay, is okay the next!!! Good grief! No wonder people are so stressed! And it’s no wonder that some of us have decided to stay put until we really, really know for sure that we’re all clear! These fluctuations can be really difficult. Because the rules are changing, we need to be careful not to get overly frustrated when what we expect does not happen.
It’s not easy but we need to work towards accepting that these frequent shifts will likely be how things are going to work for a while. We need to try to deal with “how things are today”. It might also be helpful to focus on what is stable and consistent, and what things are in our control. For example, you may help your emotional brain remember this by repeating to yourself when you wake up or are brushing your teeth, “Even though things might change tomorrow, I can still go for a walk with ______; or I can still have movie nights with ______”. Let the thing that you choose to focus on that is stable, be something that really matters to you and makes you feel connected, happy, or gives you a sense of purpose.
5. Know the facts. Each area is different with respect to rates of infection and rates of hospitalization. One study noted that some of us tend to overestimate the risk of contracting Covid and others underestimate the risk. Knowing the actual risk helps us determine what events and situations are fine and which ones are riskier.
6. All the tips so far are really about how to take care of ourselves, but there are also very basic self-care practices that help us cope better with stressful situations and they have to do with taking care of our bodies. They include eating well, getting adequate sleep, getting fresh air and sunshine, and working our bodies in whatever way is most helpful and appropriate for us (physio, exercise).
7. Lastly, if you’re having a particularly hard time, it might be helpful to meet with a professional counsellor to work through this difficulty. Many of these professionals do virtual sessions if you prefer this option.
Going into lockdown was difficult, overwhelming, and sad for many of us. Coming out of it and getting back to our normal lives may also be challenging. The key thing is, be kind towards yourself and others as we all get used to the changes around us. Be patient with yourself and others. Pace yourself, recognize and communicate what you’re comfortable with, surround yourself with encouraging people. We’ll get through this together if we take this perspective.