The door to our pre-pandemic world seemingly stands before us. Vaccines are becoming more accessible, and some COVID-19 restrictions have loosened. We simply have to open the door and return to our pre-pandemic life, right? Back to the future we know? If only it were that simple. Our previous reality has vanished. Millions of lives have been lost, and millions more suffer from the consequences of the pandemic. People we could not save and people we are still trying to help. The world is not the same, and we are not the same people we were before our collective, pandemic trauma. We have watched our colleagues die due to the pandemic from the virus, complications, and suicide. We have seen moral injury, burnout, anxiety, and depression skyrocket as images of freezer tuckers filled with bodies still burn in our heads.
In our personal lives, many of us lost loved ones or friends, and most of us feel as though a year of our life proceeded at multiple warped speeds with the fast forward button pushed on major life events such as births, childhood milestones, and deaths and the pause button pushed on regular family dinners, work activities, date nights, school and travel. Even routine and renewing social traditions in our communities were abandoned. We cannot go back to the future because we are not the same people, and the world is not the same place that it was more than a year ago. We have seen too much and now face the future from a new perspective.
Re-entry can be a difficult transition after any major change in circumstances and is often considered in regards to people socially isolated in Antarctica for months, soldiers returning home, survivors of major illnesses, people returning from jail, and other people who have faced an isolating, reality or/and life-changing trauma. While the social isolation, lockdown, and collective trauma may be at a different level than other traumatic re-entry events, the collective loss of life, prolonged period, shattered work experience, and disrupted daily reality of the pandemic has set the stage for a potentially stressful or awkward transition back to “normal” life.
In fact, nearly 50 percent of Americans feel “uneasy” about future in-person interactions (regardless of vaccine status), and 46 percent report that they are not comfortable returning to their way of life pre-pandemic. While this re-entry stress is widespread, the forced pandemic pause has also led many people to reconsider what is vital and sustaining in their daily lives. What matters most professionally and personally?
After a year of N-95s, “maskne,” pods, eating at home, and social distancing, the thought of noisy traffic, crowded sidewalks, and busy restaurants may feel slightly overwhelming and carry some degree of sensory overload initially. After experiencing the deaths, the noise of life may be too loud.
Yet, the best way to handle this may be to explore little bite-sized pieces of our brave new world. This allows for a period of recovery and adjustment before venturing out again. Taking the baby steps of trying one re-entry experience at a time — a dinner, a walk in the city, or afternoon in the park — may ease the transition.
As with other stressors, starting with being present and mindful of our feelings and other people’s feelings helps deescalate our internal situation and allows us to zoom out. This may include practicing breathing techniques, using a mindfulness application, connecting with a loved one, discussing re-entry concerns with a supportive friend, spending time outdoors in a green setting, practicing gratitude, creating something that brings you joy (art, food, music, dance, woodwork, writing), exercising, practicing acts of kindness, building self-compassion, and doing activities that inspire awe. Maybe, it is time to find bits of awe and joy every day.
We may not know exactly what lies on the other side of the door, but re-entering society at our own pace with intention, mindfulness, and compassion for ourselves and for others will help us get back to our new future with greater ease.
Saloni Sharma is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.
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