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Whereas a return to normal life after Covid once seemed far off, today many Americans are thankfully returning to the office and other aspects of pre-pandemic life: dining out, workouts at the gym, worship, the theatre, kids’ sporting events, and so on. With this return to more of a sense of normalcy, many people are also feeling a sense of relief and hope that there is life after Covid and that life as they once knew it is finally making a comeback.
Yet relief is not the only emotion that people are feeling as they transition back into pre-Covid routines and environments. Coronavirus anxiety is still very real. So are the many uncertainties that remain. And, for people whose mental, emotional and/or physical health may have improved with social distancing, the move back to “normal life” has introduced both old and new worries and stresses.
For help managing these stresses, we turned to FHE Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW. What follow are some insights, based on that interview, for anyone who may be experiencing anxiety or other mental health issues as they struggle to adjust to the new normal of post-Covid life.
How a Return to Normal Life After Covid Can Be Stressful
In what ways can a return to normal life after Covid be stressful? When we put this question before Dr. Nelson, he named a few ways.
The Effects of Stress and Isolation on the Psyche
The psychological effects of isolation are one reason a person might experience stress from a return after Covid to previous norms. Dr. Nelson mentioned the higher rates of anxiety and depression, which he attributed to the stress and isolation of social distancing and lockdowns:
We know this is stressful. We know there have been a lot of losses. We know this has affected our families, our friends, our workplaces, and virtually everything we do in the world … Stress that is acute, short-lived and in response to a real threat will pass, and we move on to the next thing. Chronic stress, however, is more serious and it impacts our emotions and our physical health.
At the same time, the threat of a pandemic meant that all of us were forced to adopt a “new routine,” one to which we quickly became accustomed. Many of us felt safer and became comfortable with this new routine. Now, when this “‘new routine’ is being challenged (as workplaces require people to come back to the brick-and-mortar office, etc.), this puts people in a new situation (even though it used to be the norm) and can bring up feelings of discomfort and fear.”
The Disruption of Old (But New) Routines
In other words, one very normal cause of stress is the disruption of routines that many of us have come to view as essential to our health and safety. In fact, “stress in this transition is probably normal,” Dr. Nelson said, “but if it does not pass then it could be chronic stress that deserves attention in the form of self-care and healthy lifestyle choices.”
Why Returning to Work Can Cause More Stress and Corona Anxiety
Living through the pandemic has affected all of us. “No one has been immune to the effects … It has disrupted individual lives, families, workplaces, our sense of safety, and just about every other facet of life,” in Dr. Nelson’s words.
He described life in the pandemic as one of “rolling change,” meaning “one day stay at home, no interaction, wear a mask, get vaccinated, to the next phase of get back to work, get the kids back in schools, anti-vaxxers and the politics of it all … then on to the Delta variant, stop going to restaurants, masks, booster vaccinations, and so much more.”
Inevitably, this context of rolling change often drastically impacted how we worked and are working. For example, it required so many of us “to work from home, spend time being teacher, daycare director, and activities coordinator for our kids and families.”
Returning to work in can be stressful “because we have adapted to our home environment and routines to create normalcy and safety” and when those routines stop, we feel less safe and more anxious. Here is how Dr. Nelson described it:
When the epidemic first hit, we were all scared. We accommodated the changes, and those made us feel safe at the time. So, our stress might have gone down because we believed we were safer than before.
Humans like to do things when dangers arise—it is hard-wired in us. So, the mask wearing, using hand sanitizer, staying away from crowds, not going out, etc., helped us to feel safe.
Now, with a return to work, we must adjust yet again. A transition is a time for “re-tooling” oneself. Even if we can adjust physically or alter our activities, we may still be emotionally reacting to what is going on. The things we thought would keep us “safe” are not always an option, so we need to find new ways to change, create new routines, and still find safety in all that.
Signs It May Be Time to Seek Help
Living with rolling change and dealing with the constant hype of Covid-related news, issues, and feelings “can feel like a roller coaster day to day,” Dr. Nelson said. He explained that some stress and anxiety can play a positive role in alerting human beings to stay safe, pay attention to threats or danger, or exercise more self-care. Other signs, though, could mean that it is time to seek help. These “signs of distress” could be … “weight loss or weight gain, poor sleep, or panic or anxiety attacks that come out of nowhere … Additional signs could be changes in mood, such as becoming angry, sad, or withdrawn. A person needing help might have physical ailments, difficulties taking care of themselves, or they may self-isolate and shut off healthy supports.”
“Anything that does not resolve after a week or two probably is a sign that you need help getting past this hurdle,” Dr. Nelson said. In that event, he offered the following tips for self-care:
- Talk to a family member or close supportive friend about what’s going on
- Consult your healthcare provider or reach out to a therapist who is licensed at treating emotional disorders
And as final words of encouragement from Dr. Nelson:
“In the end, any support is going to help when you are navigating a difficult situation. Remembering you are not alone, that there are others going through the same thing, and that there are resources available to help means that we can cope and move forward despite all that life throws at us. There is always hope.”