May 28, 2020

Adjusting as the World Opens Up Again

Written by
Lindsay Knight, PhD
Reviewed by
Updated on
July 27, 2023

For many of the hardest hit states, the peak of COVID cases seems to be in the rear view. This isn’t to say that communities are in the clear, but that after two very challenging and isolating months we’re on the precipice of a new stage: leaving our homes and interacting in public spaces again.

This restart—both economically and socially—will be a significant jolt to most of us. Though many of us struggled with isolation and disconnection during shelter-at-home and anxieties brought on by a worsening pandemic, the lifting of restrictions by no means insures a return to “normalcy.” In fact, we seemed primed to have a wave of new uneasiness wash over us.

Some of us are ready (and eager) to leave our homes, but many (if not most) of us have some strong reservations about what this openness will bring. How do relaxing restrictions on our movements and community impact our mental health? How should we navigate sharing spaces with others again? What does our inner monologue look like in deciphering real threats to mental and physical health versus letting our anxieties and fears get the better of us?

Unsurprisingly, the way we approach these questions and our reactions to our (yet again) changing circumstances can significantly impact our mental health—for both the better and the worse.

The Push and Pull: It’s Just Plain Psychologically Taxing

We’re frustrated sheltering-at home. We recognize the dire economic straits that individuals and communities find themselves thrown into as a result of the pandemic. We’re fearful about a society and an economy that isn’t ready in terms of public health and well-being to return to “normal”—whatever normal even means going forward.

We’re also experiencing all of these feelings simultaneously. As our cities and states relax restrictions around us, we need to figure out how to sort through this barrage of conflicting psychological stressors.

As with everything COVID-related, it helps to remind ourselves (time, and time, again) that not only are these conditions surreal, but we’re not alone in struggling to cope with them. The vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with the economy opening. A quarter of people surveyed in a WebMD poll said that they felt afraid to leave their home or registered some degree of trauma related to COVID—and even more concerning over three quarters stated that they had not sought counseling despite these feelings.

These tensions, paired with the staggering number of people not seeking adequate support to deal with them, implies that it’s primetime for some introspection and self-assessment.

Recognizing the Stressors

We don’t really know for sure what the long term mental health effects are for such a long period spent in quarantine. It might lead to higher incidences of depression, anxiety, suicide, or substance abuse. Prior experience can only tell us so much about our current conditions.

For many of us, even acknowledging that we don’t know what’s going to happen—that we can’t even begin to control those unknowns—is enough to trigger issues of anxiety and control. What we can do is acknowledge that the stakes are high, and proceed slowly and introspectively. So take stock, really ask yourself what’s at the root of your uneasiness.

What are you most worried about as communities begin to open up? Perhaps you’re worried about being in a position where you have to interact with those who didn’t take the shelter-at-home precautions as seriously, and they are now spreaders of COVID. Maybe you’re facing issues of control and hyper vigilance because of the health and safety of your family or those in your network with pre-existing conditions.

Threats to the physical health of ourselves and our loved ones are clearly important. However, remind yourself: Many of these threats can be mitigated with responsible social distancing. Don’t let irrational fears get the better of you. The solution to these concerns is not an unending cycle where you never leave your house or see others. There is a way to regain balance.

Also, keep in mind that these worries and anxieties might very well stem beyond impacts on physical health and safety. For the parents among us, you may be preoccupied with the long term impact on your children’s development. Will we end up with a generation conditioned to be fearful of human contact? Instead of dwelling on the size and scope of these questions, try and think of small (and safe) ways to integrate social interaction into your child’s world.

For those of us who depend on structure and rules to govern our daily lives, you might be fearful of a more general, creeping anxiety during the reopening. Going from a home environment where you can control almost everything into a world where that control is loosened will take some adjusting to; as will grappling with worry about not doing the “right thing,” and getting mixed messages from employers, local and national government, and politicians.

Coming to grips with uncertainty about when things will be actually ‘ok’ again will take some navigating. During this negotiation process, keep your focus on the elements that you can control, and make it a habit to gut-check the reasonable ways that you can (and cannot) keep yourself and your community safe.

It’s equally important to be cognizant of the signs that you’re dealing with an unmanageable amount of anxiety or worry under these conditions. If you’re concerned that you aren’t handling things in a healthy or productive way, here’s a self-diagnostic on when it’s appropriate to seek therapy.

Re-Learning to Cope

As with all major disruptions to life, routine, and habit we need to be aware that as conditions change our outlook and coping mechanisms must also shift. Even if we don’t know what the future will bring—and honestly, no one does right now—we can be proactive in how we each re-enter public spaces for both our own mental health and the health of our community.

First and foremost, despite all of our anxieties and fear, we must remind ourselves to treat people as people, and not simply as vectors for disease. The vast majority of people are as afraid and filled with trepidation as we are—and are being responsible about reentry and public health. Simple acts of acknowledgement and kindness go a long way in mending a healthy social fabric. It’s hard to convey a smile with a mask on, but a simple nod or casual wave as you walk down the street can go a long way.

Second, now is a perfect time to start practicing mindfulness (if you don’t already). Make being centered and present a priority. There are many elements of our world that we don’t have control over right now. However, we’re also on the precipice of reimagining what our work-life balance looks like. There's an opportunity to take lessons from the past two months of isolation.

Use this in-between period to focus on the elements of your world that you can shape. Rewrite your habits and routines the way you want them. Maybe you became closer with distant family and friends and instituted regular check-ins? Keep them! If all we needed was an excuse to reconnect, then maintain those connections going forward. Make it a habit to keep in touch with those who had fallen out of your orbit.

Some people may have found the isolation of shelter-at-home lonely. Others of you may have experienced it at a ‘reset’ moment, and now you’re concerned about losing that sense of calm and quiet of mind. Going back to a life filled with stress and pressure and hectic schedules seems undesirable—so don’t go back to your “normal.” You have the power, in large part, to negotiate what you let back into your life.

Give yourself the opportunity to say no to things that simply crowd your life and don’t augment it. Particularly as it relates to the social anxieties felt around other’s expectations of us and pressures around appearance or “always being on”. Maybe it’s time for an edit in terms of a beauty routine, or more clearly defined time boundaries about when you’re available for work. What did you experience as “necessary” these past few months? Likewise, what were you relieved that you could stop doing?

Most importantly, take time to account for the things you missed! As restrictions relax, we can also allow ourselves to get excited again about experiencing those elements that have been truly lacking in our lives. Even though we may not be able to integrate them all back at once, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Let your mind wander: What are you going to cook for your next dinner party with friends? What trails and parks are you going to go to first?

As restrictions around our movements become more relaxed, we’re met with both anticipation of what we missed and stress about what could go wrong. This push and pull creates conditions ripe for new anxieties and struggles for control in our lives. We each need to be proactive in assessing our triggers, mapping out solutions, and seeking help when needed.

Take stock of where your anxieties are rooted, what you can reasonably do to mitigate them, and also allow yourself the freedom to re-imagine and shape what your life will look like post-quarantine.

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